International diplomatic efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear question took a promising turn last month when the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany joined the International Atomic Energy Agency in underwriting a complex deal for providing enriched fuel to the Tehran Research Reactor. In essence, the deal involves Iran temporarily exporting up to 1,200 kg of low enriched uranium already produced by its Natanz facility to Russia, where it would be enriched to just under 20 per cent. This fuel would then be sent to France for fabrication into rods, whereupon it would be inserted into the TRR under IAEA supervision and used for the eventual production of medical isotopes. The Iranian side initially welcomed the broad proposal but the draft agreement has since run into trouble in Tehran. Some influential members of the Majlis have denounced it as a western plot to ensure that Iran loses control of its LEU stockpile. Other analysts and officials have questioned specific elements, such as the involvement of the French, a party the Islamic Republic is reluctant to trust. As a result, the Iranian government has yet to formally come back to the IAEA or the P5+1 with its response.
The TRR fuel deal is a classic win-win arrangement. It vindicates the emphasis Iran has placed on developing indigenous enrichment facilities. It provides time to the United States and its allies to work out the contours of an eventual diplomatic settlement without having to worry about Iran using its accumulated LEU stockpile to ‘break out’ of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and build a weapon. From the Iranian point of view, the most attractive part of the proposal is that it represents a climbdown of sorts from the untenable western insistence on suspending enrichment at Natanz altogether. Although all or a part of the existing Natanz output will be exported, there is no requirement that Iran undertake not to replenish its stockpile. Unfortunately, the TRR deal runs the risk of getting embroiled in President Mahmoud Ahmadinijad’s domestic political troubles. Some of the details can be modified if Iran is wary of exporting all 1,200 kg in one shot: it could insist on part-purchase of enriched fuel or the prior shipment of a portion of the latter as a confidence-building measure. But Tehran would be unwise to reject the main thrust of the deal, not least because it represents the first serious effort by the Obama administration to diplomatically engage with the Islamic Republic. On its part, Washington must be flexible on the final shape the TRR package takes. It must resist the temptation to muddy the waters by constantly talking about the need for fresh sanctions. Productive dialogue cannot go hand in hand with the threat of coercion.