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The Race for Iran


A senior European diplomat, speaking in Paris this week, reportedly told The Jerusalem Post that Iran has already rejected Mohammed ElBaradei’s proposal for refueling the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), but President Obama is withholding the news .  As readers ponder how many national governments were involved in spinning this story, we note that Siddarth Varadarajan—strategic affairs editor for India’s The Hindu and a journalist with deep expertise in Iranian issues—published a front-page story earlier this week reporting an exclusive interview with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who has been traveling in India.  The link to Siddarth’s article is here; the full transcript of his interview with Mottaki is here.

In contrast to the Jerusalem Post story, Mottaki says that Tehran views positively ElBaradei’s proposal for refueling the TRR, but wants any exchange of finished fuel assemblies for a portion of Iran’s current stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) to take place in Iran, rather than in a third country.  Specifically, the Iranian Foreign Minister told Siddarth that, “with a positive view regarding the essence and nature of the proposal, we are reviewing the possibility of exchanging this fuel inside Iran…we believe that with the continuation of the diplomacy going on now, it is possible to reach an agreement and compromise”.  Mottaki subsequently offered similar remarks to an Iranian news agency. 

Mottaki has been ambiguous—deliberately so, one assumes—regarding the ultimate disposition of the LEU which might be swapped for new fuel assemblies.  Following the swap, would the LEU be removed from Iran?  Or, as some Iranian commentators have suggested, would the LEU be turned over to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) but kept in Iran?  Unfortunately, Western officials—including French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner—are stating categorically that Tehran has rejected ElBaradei’s proposal .   

As we follow the diplomatic back and forth, it is important to keep in mind that the TRR issue came to the fore because of an Iranian request to the IAEA several months ago for assistance in dealing with prospective providers of new fuel.  While Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in New York for the United Nations General Assembly in September, he spoke publicly about Iran’s interest in purchasing new fuel for the reactor; when asked by Newsweek’s Lally Weymouth what Iran would give in return, he noted that “we would pay money for the material”.  In principle, there should not be a problem with refueling a thoroughly safeguarded reactor facility that produces medical isotopes and has never been implicated in any activities raising proliferation concerns.  More particularly, there should not be a problem with this if the United States and its partners want to show seriousness about their rhetorical acknowledgement of Iran’s right to the full benefits of peaceful nuclear technology. 

However, what came back from the P-5+1 at its October 1 meeting with Iranian representatives in Geneva was not a proposal for a normal commercial transaction, but rather a proposal to take most of Iran’s current stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia for further enrichment and then to France for fabrication into fuel rods which might then be usable for the TRR.  While Iranian negotiators seemed to accept ElBaradei’s version of this proposal “in principle” at a technical meeting at the IAEA on October, the TRR issue has become deeply controversial in Tehran political circles. 

Some Western commentators criticize ElBaradei’s proposal as implying international acceptance of uranium enrichment on Iranian soil.  Public statements by President Ahmadinejad since the proposal was first advanced suggest that he wants to “spin” it along these lines in Iran.  But, in fact, there has been no give on Western insistence that Iran suspend its enrichment activities, as stipulated in three Security Council resolutions.  Indeed, from the perspective of many Iranian (and other non-Western) observers, ElBaradei’s proposal harkens back to the European position in 2005, when the EU-3 (Britain, France, and Germany) demanded not only full suspension of enrichment but also insisted that Iran’s accumulated stockpile of uranium hexafluoride (the feedstock that centrifuges turn into enriched uranium) be sent to Russia for actual enrichment.  (This was the thrust of the so-called “Russian proposal”, which was rejected by Iran.) 

Tehran will be reluctant to set a precedent of surrendering a significant portion of its LEU stockpile when the question of whether the West is prepared to “accept” enrichment on Iranian territory as part of an overall nuclear deal has not been addressed.  It may still be possible to put together a scheme for refueling the TRR that would be acceptable to Iran as well as to the United States and other major international players—but only if the United States and its Western partners stop trying to use an essentially technical problem as cover to limit Iran’s nuclear program in ways that Tehran would never accept in the context of political negotiations. 

And, of course, there is still an option simply to let the Islamic Republic purchase new fuel assemblies for the TRR.  Surely this would be preferable to Iran taking its own LEU—currently enriched to 3-4 percent—and enriching it to the roughly 20 percent level required by the TRR.  To be sure, this is not an ideal solution for Iran, as it is not clear how long Iranian engineers would need to figure out how to fabricate more highly-enriched uranium into fuel rods.  But if Iran is “stiffed” on purchasing fuel for a thoroughly safeguarded reactor producing medical isotopes, the government may well decide to show its displeasure with the international community’s unwillingness to support the Islamic Republic’s peaceful nuclear activities by enriching some portion of its LEU stockpile to 20 percent.  The West’s unwillingness to deal with a technical problem in a technical way could well end up giving Tehran an incentive to move in this direction.      

 –Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



  1. Thank you for another essential article. Where else could anyone get that kind of selective information in such a clear way of writing? I have a presentation next week, and I am on the lookout for such selective information.

  2. Your analysis is very useful, but casting the TRR fuel issue as a technical problem ignores the overriding strategic and political issues. Iran’s request to buy TRR fuel was almost surely a gambit to create an excuse for further enriching to 20%. Iran would have known that Argentina, which provided the original load, would not agree on a re-supply once Iran appointed as defense minister a man wanted in the 1994 bombing of the Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires. Iran might further have predicted that France, which has taken the hardest line among Iran’s negotiating partners, would not be interested in a commercial transaction either. The US/Russia/French offer to provide the fuel called Iran’s bluff. It is to France’s credit that it agreed to a confidence-building measure that, if implemented, would provide a possible way out of the nuclear impasse by establishing a precedent for Iran to send its LEU stockpile out of the country.

    Iran knows it cannot fabricate the 20% fuel for the TRR itself. It is not just a matter of ‘figuring out’ how to do it. Iran’s engineers surely can meet the technical challenge. But to be used in the research reactor safely and without voiding the liability provisions, the fuel production has to be certified, a process that would take many years. Iranian production of 20% fuel now would be highly provocative.