Sometimes, it just doesn’t pay to repeat your errors. Take the nuclear-fuel-swap deal the United States, France, and Russia offered to Iran last October: We offered to make Iran the 19.75 percent enriched-uranium fuel they needed to refuel a small research reactor near Tehran in exchange for Tehran handing over roughly two-thirds of all the low enriched uranium (LEU) they had on hand. Iran would lose the ability to make a bomb’s worth of weapons-grade uranium from the LEU they had stockpiled, since most of it would be out of country for nearly a year. We would gain time to get Iran to comply with the United Nations resolution demanding that Iran suspend its nuclear-fuel-making activities.
At the time, critics, including me, complained that even if Iran accepted this offer, Tehran could continue to enrich uranium and get a bomb’s worth of it in roughly 12 months. Worse, I argued, the deal implicitly legitimated Iranian efforts to enrich their uranium to 19.75 percent, and took most of the steam out of sanctioning Iran for violating the U.N. resolution.
Given these problems, and Iran’s rejection of the offer last December, you would think that we would have simply let the offer die a quiet death. Unfortunately, you would be dead wrong. Over the weekend, Brazil and Turkey finally persuaded Iran to agree to the October nuclear-fuel-swap deal.
As it turns out, nobody in our government bothered to take the October deal off the table. Now for the bad news: What made little sense seven months ago makes even less sense today.
Why? Iran has more LEU on hand and is making more and more. As a result, instead of giving up roughly two-thirds of what LEU it had, Iran now only has to give up roughly one-half of what it has. This has real consequences: Assuming Iran gives up the LEU it promises to Turkey and uses the most inefficient of enrichment techniques, it would still be no more than eight months from getting what it needs to make a bomb’s worth of weapons-grade uranium. What’s worse, if Iran can enrich its LEU further in an optimized, covert enrichment plant, it would be no more than two or three months from having all the LEU it would need to make a bomb.
Meanwhile, the Turkish-Brazilian deal all but eliminates pressure to impose sanctions on Iran. At least, that’s how Turkey and Brazil see it, and both are voting members of the U.N. Security Council. Iran, the two countries reason, was promised a suspension of sanctions last fall if it took the deal, and now it has.
There’s one more negative twist. Under the terms of the deal, if for any reason Iran determines that the provisions of the current deal “are not respected,” Turkey, “upon the request of Iran, will return swiftly and unconditionally Iran’s LEU to Iran.”
Bottom line: Russia, France, and the U.S. are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. On one hand, their diplomats all agree that the offer was never taken off the table. On the other hand, if they do honor the deal, it effectively sucks the air out of the sanctions balloon in exchange for little or no delay in Iran’s march toward nuclear weapons capability.
All of this has got to make you wonder. Who came up with this fuel-swap idea in the first place? And, while we are at it, who exactly backed the idea of keeping it on the table well after it became clear it was a bad idea getting worse? As Glenn Kessler noted in his Washington Post coverage of this story back in October of 2009, “US officials refuse to say which person in the government dreamt up the plan. ‘I think we want to see if it succeeds before we designate paternity here,’ said one senior official.” Now that the plan has embarrassed the U.S. and its allies who were pushing for sanctions, and made a hash of any serious effort to block Iran’s march to nuclear weapons capability, bank on there being no paternity at all.
– Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, D.C., and author of Controlling the Further Spread of Nuclear Weapons (Council on Foreign Relations).