by Ivanka Barzashka and Thomas M. Rickers
Coaxed by Turkey and Brazil, Iran seems to be actively pursuing fuel talks. France, Russia and the U.S. (also known as the Vienna Group) claim that they, too, are interested in a deal, even as the U.S. and EU passed their own tougher sanctions against the Islamic Republic as part of a dual-track approach. Now Tehran may even be willing to address what was once the major hindrance to a deal: its 20 percent enrichment. Yesterday, Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s atomic energy head, said his country “will not need to enrich to 20 percent if [their] needs are met.” And yet on July 18, the Majlis passed a law requiring the government to continue 20 percent enrichment and manufacture own fuel, which is an apparent contradiction to negotiations for foreign fuel supply. Clearly, Iran is sending mixed messages. But does this mean there is an internal disagreement about nuclear policy? Or is Iran not serious about a fuel deal?
Despite tough talk after sanctions and threats to withdraw from negotiations for foreign fuel supply for its medical isotope reactor, Iran says the fuel deal is still on the table. Last weekend Foreign Minister Mottaki met with his Turkish and Brazilian counterparts to review the Tehran Declaration, in which Iran acquiesced to the once-controversial terms of shipping low-enriched material to Turkey for safekeeping until fuel elements are manufactured. The meeting was quickly followed by a letter to the IAEA, in which Tehran responded the Vienna Group’s original objections to the proposal. Those objections — the most important of which was Iran’s failure to address halting 20-percent enrichment and removal of its stock of 20-percent enriched uranium—had been serious enough to advance the recent UN sanctions resolution, despite the fact that the Tehran Declaration was essentially a concession to the Vienna Group’s October 2009 fuel-swap proposal.
FAS has previously argued that, before sanctions were passed, higher-level enrichment was most likely meant as political leverage. If fuel were supplied from abroad, then Tehran’s rationale for higher enrichment would no longer be valid. But U.S. officials argued that Tehran was steadfast on continuing higher level enrichment “notwithstanding any potential agreement on the Tehran Research Reactor,” even after the Tehran Declaration was signed. Before the tough new measures were adopted, there were signs that Iran was willing to stop 20-percent enrichment if fuel were received. On Monday, Turkey claimed that “Iran has given an assurance that it would stop enriching uranium to 20 percent purity if world powers agreed to a proposed nuclear fuel swap.” The statement was later confirmed by Salehi himself.
But these developments are in apparent contradiction to the new Nuclear Achievement Protection Law, which the Majlis passed overwhelmingly on July 18. The legislation, adopted as a retaliatory response to sanctions, requires the government to continue 20 percent enrichment and pursue own fuel production. According to the Iranian media, Tehran would be obligated to make investments in civilian nuclear technology to “bring the country to full nuclear independence.” In addition, the new law empowers the government to respond to any inspection of Iranian ships (or a refusal to refuel Iranian commercial aircraft) and bans the IAEA from conducting nuclear inspections in Iran beyond what is required by the NPT.
One explanation for the contradiction could be bureaucratic competition: The Majlis may be trying to assert authority over nuclear decision-making. A disagreement between the legislature and the executive is not without precedent. The Majlis and the Guardian Council (an office within the executive branch that approves all legislation) clashed recently in a dispute over control of Azad University. The disagreement became acrimonious enough that Ayatollah Khamenei was forced to step in and end the squabbling.
In this case, such a dispute seems unlikely, although the Nuclear Achievement Protection Law is not yet implemented. For one thing, given the ultimate authority of the Supreme Leader and the Expediency Council and the high priority of the nuclear issue, it is hard to imagine that the bill would have passed overwhelmingly (or even have been considered at all) without the tacit approval of Khamenei. For another, the secretary of the Guardian Council recently praised the Majlis bill in a speech at Tehran University, suggesting executive branch approval of the law.
If the law is implemented, it would probably not preclude the government from pursuing fuel negotiations. A mandate to continue 20 percent enrichment and manufacture of own fuel essentially obviates the need to purchase fuel from abroad and therefore to pursue the fuel deal, but it does not directly forbid a fuel swap. While the bill’s language has not been made public, the fuel deal is not mentioned in Iranian news accounts of the issue .
Despite the appearance of a policy rift, the law is in fact consistent with previous Iranian nuclear policy. First, it is in line with calls for retaliation against countries responsible for the new round of sanctions against Iran. The Nuclear Achievement Protection Bill was a direct response to the tough new measures, having been introduced into the Majlis only a week after the UN resolution was passed. Second, in the past, Iran has responded to international sanctions by reaffirming its nuclear rights and boosting nuclear capabilities in an effort to show that coercion is useless. Similarly, the new measures directly contradict the requirements posed by the new sanctions resolution. The law calls on Iran to continue business as usual: continue enrichment, not respond to questions about alleged nuclear weapons research, which Iran believes fall outside the IAEA’s mandate, and not enforce the Additional Protocol, which would provide inspectors with additional access to nuclear facilities.
Moreover, the new law is in line with Iran’s new “dual-track” strategy: continuing nuclear expansion while keeping engagement options open. (Iranian officials have been quite irritated by the US carrot-and-stick approach, which allowed for sanctions to go forward despite Iran’s ostensible concession on the fuel deal. To defy the coercive measures, Salehi announced that Iran would also pursue a “dual-track.”) The Islamic Republic says it is still interested in acquiring fuel from abroad. Both Larijani, the speaker of the Majlis, and Ahmadinejad have said that the Tehran Declaration (and therefore a fuel deal) is still on the table. This is further evidence to show that the legislature and the executive are on the same page.
But Iran it is simultaneously moving forward on making its own fuel. Tehran continues to enrich to 20 percent at the Pilot Enrichment Plant at Natanz. It is not clear whether the needed production lines are being set up at the fuel fabrication and conversion facilities yet, but the Iranian atomic energy organization claims it has the know-how to produce the fuel elements, which could be ready by September 2011. In addition, Salehi announced plans for four new medical isotope reactors, beginning with a 20 MW reactor, or four times the size of the TRR. The Nuclear Achievement Protection Law reaffirms these announcements.
So what does this mean for the future of negotiations? The situation with Iran’s higher-level enrichment has become more complex. Boosting nuclear capabilities is consistent with Iran’s past responses to international sanctions. But plans for a new reactor would give Tehran a reason to continue with 20 percent enrichment, even if fuel is supplied from abroad for the TRR. On the other hand, if Tehran is pessimistic about acquiring foreign fuel and suspicious of international fuel supply guarantees, building four new reactors would provide economic justification for higher level enrichment and investments in fuel manufacture.
Although there are indications that Iran may be willing to suspend 20 percent enrichment at least temporarily, it is very unlikely it will forgo the capability. If Iran is looking for a quid pro quo for sanctions, it could, as part of a dual-track policy continue enrichment (saying it is for fuel for the new 20 MW reactor) or simply restart enrichment at a later time. It would be difficult to get Tehran to sign off on any document that sets upward bounds on its enrichment. Tehran is unlikely to suspend production of 20 percent uranium before fuel is actually received. (Note that, technically, a deal itself does not take away Iran’s own reason for higher level enrichment, but actually receiving the fuel does.) Also, if substantial investments are made in fuel production, as the new law calls for, Iran is less likely to suspend enrichment and give up fuel fabrication rights.
Pursuing a deal with Iran is still worthwhile. Swapping low-enriched uranium for fuel elements sets an important precedent, which lowers the breakout threat. Iran plans for four new reactors provide it with a civilian purpose for 20 percent enrichment. But the reactors themselves are not a threat, the stockpile of 20-percent uranium is. As long as the Iranians export enriched uranium and purchase fuel from abroad, this is good news. Ultimately, a fuel deal undermines Iran’s main reason to pursue its own enrichment – that there are no credible international fuel guarantees.
Thomas M. Rickers is an intern with the Strategic Security Program and a master’s degree candidate at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.