Twenty Percent Solution: Breaking the Iranian Stalemate

by Ivanka Barzashka and Ivan Oelrich

Iran and the rest of the world are stalemated. Obama’s deadline for Tehran to address concerns about its nuclear program passed at the end of 2009, so the White House is moving to harsher sanctions. But the US is having trouble rallying the needed international support because Iranian intentions remain ambiguous. The deadlock includes negotiations on fueling Iran’s medical isotope reactor. With no progress on that front, Iran has begun its own production of 20-percent uranium for reactor fuel, a worrying development that could put Iran closer to a nuclear weapon. Yet, even while talk of sanctions escalates, Tehran says it is still interested in buying the 20 percent reactor fuel from foreign suppliers.

The Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) deal has backfired. The offer, to trade a large part of Iran’s low enriched uranium (LEU) for finished TRR fuel elements, was meant to abate the potential Iranian nuclear threat by reducing Iran’s stockpile of enriched nuclear material. By artificially coupling two distinct problems, re-fueling the TRR and Iran’s enrichment program, the US, France and Russia have given Tehran a reason, even a humanitarian one, to enrich to higher concentrations. The move to 20 percent enrichment will reduce by more than half the time needed for Iran to get a bomb’s worth of material.

There are clear indications, however, that Iran’s decision is not irreversible. A technical assessment shows that Iran is not really serious about 20 percent enrichment at this stage. The Islamic Republic has agreed in principle to the IAEA-brokered deal of swapping domestic LEU for foreign-made TRR fuel rods and is still looking to purchase fuel. Moreover, Tehran has said that it will stop enrichment to high concentrations once a deal is struck and the suppliers deliver on it.1 Currently, the only point of contention is where and when the swap will take place – Iran wants to keep the LEU on own soil under agency safeguards until the fuel rods are delivered, but the US, France, and Russia propose that Iranian LEU be shipped out immediately and be held outside the country until the fuel elements are ready.

By arguing about the details, we are losing track of what our goals are. Our main concern should be to make it more difficult – not easier – for Iran to build a nuclear weapon. Iranian defiance has become a basis for harsher sanctions but 20 percent enrichment is a costly price to pay. We currently face a greater Iranian breakout threat, one that sanctions will not reverse but may actually exacerbate. Indeed, sanctions may be the appropriate, but only when other measures have been exhausted. We believe there is still a viable option to see the fuel deal through and reduce the threat of a potential Iranian nuclear weapons program.

We propose the perfect litmus test for Iranian nuclear intensions. The international community should simply say “yes” and accept the terms of Tehran’s exchange proposal. The big achievement has already been made: getting Iran to agree to the fuel swap. This was a decision that met considerable domestic opposition within Iran. Leaving the LEU in Iran is not a dangerous concession and would not be a change from the current state of affairs since all of the nuclear material would remain under IAEA safeguards. If the material is shipped to a location outside Natanz, such as Kish Island, this could further alleviate concerns about the possibility of a quick breakout. Under our proposal, Iran would be required to suspend 20 percent enrichment as soon as a fuel deal is made and permanently stop enrichment to higher degrees when the fuel is actually delivered. If we act quickly and the deal is successful, we will set the nuclear clock back by both stopping 20 percent enrichment and perhaps even leave Iran with less than a weapon’s worth of LEU. We will build confidence – for the West, that Iran is willing to cooperate, and for Iran, that the West can provide credible fuel guarantees.

This test of intentions has low down-side risk and high potential payoff. Having taken away the raison d’être for enriching to higher degrees, if Iran does not stop production of 20 percent uranium and ship out their LEU after having received TRR fuel on their terms, it will be clear to the most skeptical observer that Iran’s program is motivated by a bomb. Yet, even in this worst case, we will be no worse off than we are already, but will have stronger international support for coercive options. Indeed, whatever small and transient risk exists in accepting Iran’s conditions is a small price to pay for resolving the ambiguity in Iran’s nuclear efforts. And, in the best case, this could be the first page of new relationship with Iran.

For more details, read the entire Issue Brief.

Update: Please note that we have changed the name of the paper since its original publication.

10 thoughts on “Twenty Percent Solution: Breaking the Iranian Stalemate

  1. >> “The move to 20 percent enrichment will reduce by more than half the time needed for Iran to get a bomb’s worth of material.”

    This statement is misleading. 20% U235 is “Weapons-Usable”.

    One does not need 90% enriched U235 to make a bomb. The Little Boy dropped in WWII was 64 kg and only 80% U235. See: Wikipedia -> Highly_enriched_uranium .

    Even at 20%, the critical mass goes up to 400 kg and can still make an inefficient bomb. What you loose in megatonnage, you make up for in dirty by-products which is ideal for a terror weapon.

    One truckload of 20% U235 could make a small, Mediterranean country uninhabitable for centuries!

    BrianP, Austin, Texas USA

  2. BrianP, unfortunately the whole story of the Iran nukes program is concocted by slick domestic lobbies, just as with the Iraq WMDs.

    There are strong lobbies in DC out to fan the flames in the middeast.

    Iran CANNOT move closer to nukes if it doesn’t have a weapon program.

    Yes, it has capabilities to start a weapons program IF it wanted to. But it has NOT decided to make nuclear weapons. There is no such program.

    This is from the head of US Intelligence –

    Annual Threat Assessment:

    “We continue to assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that bring it closer to being able to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so. We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.”

    And the “721″ report from a few days ago:

    “…we do not know whether Iran will eventually decide to produce nuclear weapons.”

    Let us re-cap: to the best of the US IC’s knowledge the Iranian government has NOT decided to make nuclear weapons. And this intelligence likely includes detailed debriefs from the defector.

  3. Its idiotic and irresponsible to believe Iran will not develop nuclear weapons; and once they develop their nukes, the US policy makers will then no doubt go on to say that Iran does not have any plans to use its nuclear arsenal, right up to the day they use them either on us or Israel. It is a fact Iranian leaders have middle east domination on their mind and the easiest path to their goals is to build and use nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, elaborate schemes to pretend otherwise, and denial of actual facts will not save us from tomorrow’s horrible truth.

  4. NNA is absolutely right. Anyone who truly believes that Iran isn’t intending to develop nuclear weaponry is living in a fantasy world. Likewise, anyone who truly believes that economic sanctions will dissuade them from this path is equally deluded.

    There are but two choices here. Either we:

    1) come to terms with nuclear weapons in the hands of the fundamentalist nutjobs that call the shots in Iran and wait patiently for the inevitable day when a nuclear weapon made in Iran and provided to someone like Hamas is detonated in an American, European or Israeli city


    2) take whatever military action is necessary to destroy Iran’s capability to produce those weapons. If that means overthrowing Iran’s current government, then fine. That’s what a majority of Iran’s people want anyway. Taking out the “islamic republic” would solve a LOT of problems elsewhere.

    Unfortunately, I fear that the weak-kneed naif that we elected to the presidency 18 months ago has already decided on 1) and that is a course of action that will, ultimately, result in vastly greater death and destruction than 2).

  5. The reticence of the West to complete the uranium swap with Iran makes me think that the West really has ulterior motives: it really doesn’t care so much about Iranian nuclear development, but rather is maintaining a pretext to attack the Iranian government. The real problem for the West is that the Iran does not cave in to our rulers, in the manner of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and most of the other Middle Eastern countries.

    As for the shrill claims of NNA and Danram above, in the face of intelligence community data as mentioned in the prior comments, it seems that they cannot imagine any strategies except their own corrupted thinking: bomb, bomb, bomb.

  6. There are clear indications, however, we are not confortable for iran hunting our scientist and purchasing our radioactive material, that the rest of the world is unaware. The Islamic Republic has agreed in principle to the IAEA-brokered deal of swapping domestic HEFO2 for foreign-made TRR fuel silicon rods and is still looking to purchase radioactive material such as INTRUSIVE AND EXTRUSIVE RADIOACTIVE MATERIALS IN DEVELOPING COUNTRIES SUCH AS SOMALI.

  7. The authors are making a fundamental mistake. The “uranium swap offer” made by the US was never intended to be accepted. The whole point was to make an offer to Iran that was intended to be rejected, so as to paint the Iranians as the “intransigent” party and justify a further escalation of affairs: sanctionswhich are meant to eventually lead to a war. The entire nuclear standoff with Iran is pretextual, just as “WMDs in Iraq” was pretextual. Otherwise, Iran has made many significant compromise offers (including the offer to open its nuclear program entirely to joint participation by the US and other governments) which far exceeded its obligations under the NPT and would have addressed any REAL fears of nuclear weapons proliferation. However, these Iranian offers have been ignored precisely because the US has no intention of resolving the nuclear standoff with Iran, and instead needs to artificially create a crisis out of it.

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