A nuclear research reactor in Tehran may hold the key to resolving the prolonged nuclear stalemate between Iran and the West. The Iranian government is running out of the 20 percent-enriched uranium it needs to operate the reactor, and that appears to be making it amenable to compromise.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently proposed that Iran suspend production of some uranium-enrichment activities in exchange for fuel supplies from the United States. Whether the offer is an olive branch or an act of necessity, it is an unprecedented opportunity for Washington and its allies.
The proposal arose earlier this month amid the habitual bombast that surrounds Ahmadinejad’s annual trip to the U.N. General Assembly. “If you [the United States and Europe] give us uranium grade 20 percent now, we will stop production,” the Iranian president told The Washington Post and later, in basically the same terms, The New York Times.
Ahmadinejad clarified that the offer did not apply to the production of 3.5 percent-enriched uranium, which it uses at the Bushehr power station to generate electricity. But the offer is significant nonetheless.
While the 20 percent-enriched uranium is used to make medical isotopes in the Tehran Research Reactor, it lies at the perilous dividing line between low-enriched uranium and highly enriched uranium. Stockpiling 20 percent-enriched uranium significantly shortens the time then needed to make crude nuclear weapons. By seeking supplies in the West, Ahmadinejad’s offer may lower concerns that Iran will make a dash toward developing atomic bombs in the near future.
As a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran has the right to enrich uranium to 20 percent (and even more), so long as it uses the uranium solely for peaceful purposes and operates under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency. But prompted by revelations that Iran was violating its treaty obligations, the U.N. Security Council has passed six resolutions since 2006 demanding that Iran suspend all enrichment activities.
Yet the Iranian government’s nuclear aspirations remained, at least until recently, unabated. Just this year, it pugnaciously announced plans to triple its production of 20 percent-enriched uranium and started transferring enrichment operations from a plant in Natanz to an underground bunkered facility in Fordow. Despite this boastful defiance, Iran is not yet capable of refurbishing enriched uranium into fuel rods for its reactors.
And now it is also running out of 20 percent-enriched uranium. The United States once supplied the fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, but the 1979 Islamic Revolution brought an abrupt end to that relationship. In 1992, Argentina supplied 116 kilograms of 20 percent-enriched uranium, which has fueled the reactor to date.
After efforts in 2009 and 2010 to swap the majority of Iran’s stockpile of 3.5 percent uranium with fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor came to naught, Iran launched its own production of 20 percent-enriched uranium. Today, it holds more than 70 kilograms.
Although this is less than the amount required to make a nuclear bomb — about 130 kilograms at the very least — there are still concerns that Iran could stockpile enough of this uranium and then quickly enrich it further in order to produce weapons-grade material.
There is also the concern that Ahmadinejad’s offer may be empty rhetoric. His domestic standing has weakened following his recent public rifts with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. But Ahmadinejad has repeated the offer often enough, and with confirmation from the foreign minister, that it must have the backing of the Iranian political elite, including Khamenei.
And recent statements by Fereydoon Abbasi, the head of Iran’s atomic energy agency, rebuffing the possibility that Iran might halt production of 20 percent-enriched uranium or agree to fuel swaps, should not be taken too seriously. Abbasi is often belligerent — perhaps the result of being targeted for assassination last year — and traditionally neither he nor his predecessors have been included in the Iranian government’s decision-making on nuclear issues. The reality is that Tehran needs nuclear fuel for its research reactor, and it needs it now.
For once, it is strategically expedient for the United States and its allies to take Ahmadinejad at his word. They should provide Iran with 50 kilograms of fuel, without any conditions.
As the failed experiences of 2009 and 2010 demonstrated, setting conditions would be a nonstarter. On the other hand, giving Iran the fuel unconditionally would remove Iran’s rationale for refining uranium to more than 3.5 percent.
The deal would increase Iran’s safeguarded stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium to 120 kilograms, an amount large enough to operate the Tehran Research Reactor for seven years at maximum capacity — and help the 850,000 Iranians who currently depend on the reactor’s radioactive isotopes for cancer treatment — but too small to produce even one nuclear bomb.
Such a move would be, above all, a humanitarian gesture, and it would buy Washington good will with the Iranian people and undermine the regime’s anti-American, nationalistic propaganda. But it would be a humanitarian gesture with strategic benefits: curtailing Iran’s enrichment activities and potentially cutting the Gordian knot that has stalled the West’s nuclear negotiations with Iran.
Those who usually observe Iran’s nuclear program through a thick veil of suspicion will be inclined to reject any compromise with Tehran out of hand. But since other aspects of the nuclear standoff between the West and Iran — the possible military dimension of the program, heavy-water production, additional enrichment facilities — are likely to remain unresolved, this initiative is a rare chance to move forward.
By Ali Vaez, a fellow for science and technology and the director of the Iran Project at the Federation of American Scientists and Charles D. Ferguson, the president of FAS and the author of Nuclear Energy: What Everyone Needs to Know.