Nuclear Weapons

Iran Beat Us to It.

05.26.10 | 3 min read | Text by Ivan Oelrich & Ivanka Barzashka

Ivan Oelrich and Ivanka Barzashka

Back in October, when Iran put in a request to the IAEA for a new load of fuel for its medical isotope reactor in Tehran, the United States proposed that Iran ship out an equivalent amount of its low enriched uranium (LEU) in exchange. It turns out, purely coincidentally, that the amount of LEU equivalent to about 20-years worth of fuel for the reactor was almost exactly the amount that Iran would need as feedstock to produce  a bomb’s worth of material.  No one seems to question Iran’s right to purchase fuel, but the purpose of the swap was two-fold:  to get the bomb’s worth of LEU out of Iran, which would have left Iran with less than a bomb’s worth of LEU feedstock, and to provide a seed for improved cooperation and trust.

Iran accepted the idea of a swap—in principle.  (With all these proposals, cynics argue that none were made with any real expectation, or even hope, that either side would accept and they were simply ways to manipulate international opinion.  When we say “propose” or “accept,” we recognize that possibility.)  But, with neither side trusting the other, the United States wanted the LEU shipped out immediately with the fuel rods delivered a year later, while Iran wanted to hold onto its LEU until the fuel rods were delivered onto Iranian territory.  Until last week, this difference in the timing of the swap seemed to be an insurmountable obstacle to a deal.

We have calculated just what the differences in the proposed sequences and timing of the swap really amounted to.  The answer is:  very little.  Whatever value the swap had, the difference between the U.S. and Iranian approaches was tiny.  Under either plan, Iran would continue to enrich uranium to 3.5% percent.  With either timing of the swap, the advantage of leaving Iran with less than a bomb’s worth of material was eroding with each passing day.  Indeed, if the swap had been agreed when it was first proposed last October, by the time the fuel rods would have been ready the following October, there would be no difference between the two positions.

We have been arguing that, because the swap has some value, the United States should simply accept Iran’s counterproposal.  This would force Iran’s hand, put to the test its sincerity, undermine its arguments that Western fuel suppliers are not reliable, and get a ton of LEU out of the country, putting about a year on the enrichment clock.  We have presented these arguments to Senate offices, the UN missions of several members of the Security Council, and the State Department.

In each of these meetings, we have joked that, if we were working as political consultants for the Iranians (for the record – we aren’t), we would recommend to them exactly the opposite position:  because the technical difference between the US and Iranian positions is so small, simply say “yes” to the US quickly before they have a chance to say “yes” to you. Whichever side acceded first was going to get a political advantage and be able to test its opponent’s intentions.  It seems that Iran figured it out before the US and its allies did.

The political significance of the differences in the two positions can be as big as either side wants to make them. The debate since last Fall had pumped up those differences until both sides saw them as profound.  We want to reemphasize that, while Iran’s accepting the US terms is not any sacrifice from a technical standpoint—our whole point is there was hardly any difference in the two positions from the beginning, it may be a politically significant step. Thus, at very little actual, technical cost, Iran has appeared to make a significant concession.  The US and its allies should have beaten Iran to it, but they didn’t.  The question now is whether we could accept Iran’s “yes” as an answer.