Sunday, November 1, 2009

I.R. Iran's Nuclear Response Creates a Quandary

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If the Obama Administration had hoped to get the bulk of Iran's current stockpile of enriched uranium out of the country under a new agreement for reprocessing abroad, those hopes are fading fast. The counter-proposal offered by Iran on Thursday contained such substantive revisions that Western officials are interpreting it as a rejection — at least of the aspect of the deal most important to the Western powers. More worrisome, perhaps, for the future of President Obama's engagement strategy may be the fact that although the deal contained some important concessions to Tehran, the possibility that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad might embrace it sparked a storm of criticism from across the Iranian political spectrum. The agreement brokered by the International Atomic Energy Association Nuclear Agency in Vienna last week sought to bridge Western concerns that Iran's stockpile of low-enriched uranium could potentially be reprocessed into weapons material and Iran's need for fuel for a medical research reactor in Tehran. It requires Iran to provide the uranium for the fuel plates it needs from its own stocks, envisaging the transfer of an amount equivalent to some 75% of its stockpile to Russia by the end of the year for further processing.

But according to Western officials briefed on Iran's response, Tehran wants instead to ship its uranium in smaller batches, and over a longer period of time. (Just as the Western powers suspect Iran of enriching uranium for ultimate conversion into bomb material, so do the Iranians suspect that the Vienna deal may fit with the Western goal of ending Iran's enrichment capability.) But Western officials warn that anything that leaves intact Iran's current stockpile — hypothetically enough to be reprocessed into a single crude atomic bomb should Iran decide to do so — is a deal-breaker. Although Iran continues to enrich uranium, replenishing the stocks of low enriched uranium shipped out under the deal would take about another year, during which time Western powers hope to negotiate an end to uranium enrichment in Iran. The aspect of the deal most welcomed by Tehran was the fact that it represented a kind of tacit acceptance of Iran's enrichment program — after all, the uranium that would be used to create the reactor fuel was enriched in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, and the deal was not even contingent on Iran heeding those resolutions. (Read more...)