Iran nuclear fuel swap: why US, others are no longer so keen on it

Iran continues to amass more and more low-enriched uranium. So the context in which an Iran nuclear fuel swap would take place is very different today than it was only a few months ago.

By , Staff writer

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    Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, center, and his Brazilian counterpart Celso Amorim, left, and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, right, exchange documents after signing the agreement to ship most of Iran's enriched uranium to Turkey in a nuclear fuel swap deal, in Tehran, Iran, Monday.
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Iran on Monday surprised much of the world by agreeing to a nuclear fuel swap with Turkey and Brazil. The deal is similar to one that the US has been pressing Tehran to accept for months – so Washington will be happy with this development, right?

That’s unlikely. From the US point of view, one big problem is that Iran continues to amass more and more low-enriched uranium, and it has begun boosting some of this stockpile to an enrichment level it hasn’t approached before. Thus, an Iran nuclear fuel swap today might constrain the country's nuclear program much less than it would have last October.

“There is less to Iran’s agreement than meets the eye,” writes Jeffrey Lewis, director of the Nuclear Strategy & Nonproliferation Initiative at the New America Foundation, on his blog ArmsControlWonk.com.

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Under Monday’s deal, Iran would ship 1,200 kilograms of its low-enriched uranium to Turkey for safekeeping. In return, it would receive ready-made fuel rods, enriched to a level of 20 percent and capable of powering the Tehran Research Reactor, which Iran says is a crucial source of medical isotopes.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the deal means Iran has opted for a constructive approach.

“There is no ground left for more sanctions or pressure,” he told reporters in Iran, according to Turkey’s private NTV television.

But the deal has been greeted skeptically by Britain and other European nations, as well as the US, which see it as merely an attempt to delay imposition of further United Nations Security Council sanctions.

“Given Iran’s repeated failure to live up to its own commitments, and the need to address fundamental issues related to Iran’s nuclear program, the United States and international community continue to have serious concerns,” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs in a written statement issued Monday.

The US and its allies pushed Iran last October to agree to a similar deal. Its purpose then, said officials at the time, was to constrain Iran’s weapons-breakout capability. Last fall, if Iran had shipped 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium out of the country, it would not have been left with enough material to fuel a crash high-enrichment program, if it wanted to race to build a nuclear bomb.

In October, Iran’s total LEU stockpile was about 1,500 kilograms, notes an Institute for Science and International Security analysis of Monday’s announced deal. But Iran’s enrichment centrifuge arrays have continued to run, and now the stockpile is closer to 2,300 kilograms, says ISIS.

“Now, the removal of 1,200 kilograms leaves Iran with a LEU stock that is, or will be so within a few months, large enough to provide a breakout capability,” the ISIS analysis says.

In addition, Iran has also begun its own effort to produce 20 percent enriched uranium at its Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant. It has announced plans to deploy more advanced centrifuges and to build more centrifuge plants.

It would not be a bad thing for Iran to ship much of its low-enriched uranium to another country, judges the ISIS. But the context in which such a fuel swap would take place is very different today than it was only a few months ago. Thus, Monday’s announcement “provides no reason to stop negotiating in the Security Council the imposition of sanctions on Iran,” the analysis says.

Associated Press material was used in this report.

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