It seems Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have convinced Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to send 1200 kg of low enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for new fuel for the TRR.

Robert Naiman gets off the best line, even if it isn’t quite fair, saying “It’s Gollllllll! for Lula Against Western Push for Iran Sanctions.”

Naiman’s comment is unfair because the nominal intent of sanctions is to press Iran to behave better. If Iran complies, then you don’t need the sanctions.

On the other hand, there is less to Iran’s agreement than meets the eye. Although Naiman thinks the US should accept the offer, I am not so sure. Indeed, I worry that the Zombie Fuel Swap is, to extend the metaphor, an “own goal.”

The US position has been that it is “open” to such an arrangement, but that “the details matter.” In this case, the details are how much LEU Iran has produced in the interim and whether Iran continues feeding the remaining LEU into the cascades to produce ~20 percent enriched uranium. (Iran has previously said that enrichment to that level — for the TRR reactor fuel — is without respect to any fuel swap.)

The Iran-Turkey-Brazil agreement is for 1200 kilograms of LEU — but that leaves about the same amount (Iran had produced a total of 2,065 kg as of January 29, 2010 and today should about 2400 kg) back in Iran. The US seems to think Iran enriching this material to ~20 percent is a deal breaker.

I always feared the fuel swap was a waste of time — it has too many moving parts and doesn’t get at the real problem of clandestine facilities. This scenario is the perfect illustration of that objection; I only wish I had seen it so clearly at the time. The “fuel swap” was intended to delay an Iranian “breakout” capability by a year or so. But Iran can enrich uranium quicker than we can arrange for it to be sent out of the country.

After eight months of haggling, Iran has doubled its stockpile of LEU. The Iranian argument for a partial swap has a certain simplicity: After all, the 1200 kilograms is the amount needed for a load of fuel for the TRR. The exchange has a certain symmetry. What were offering for the remainder of the stockpile? Nothing.

So, is it worth getting our hands on half of Iran’s stockpile of LEU? I don’t know, I thought this was a dumb idea along, although I refrained from throwing stones in public. It would have been better to have never made this particular offer, but as it is, I see two approaches. On the merits, the Administration has to push Iran to stop enrichment above 5 percent. If Tehran agrees, that’s worth a load of TRR fuel, no question. But the Iranians are likely to refuse. In that case, should the Obama Administration insist?

The downside of insisting is that the deal, imperfect as it may be, will be viewed in most capitals as relatively fair compromise. As a result, if the fuel swap collapses, the US will suffer most of the blame. Our efforts to use sanctions in support of a negotiated resolution to the Iranian nuclear program will suffer. Brazil and Turkey will undercut us in the Security Council and any advocates of engagement inside Iran would be left hanging (perhaps literally, hard to know these days in Iran). In other words, we may have to accept a pointless “zombie fuel swap” just to get it off the agenda and to keep Brazil and Turkey in the business of taking consignments of Iranian fuel.

The downside of not insisting is that the deal — which does nothing to constrain Iran’s program — creates a false sense that the problem is Iran’s break-out capability. In the Reuters story, Western officials claimed “Iran was trying to give the impression that it was the fuel deal which was at the center of problems with the West, rather than its nuclear ambitions as a whole.” Yeah, no kidding. As regular readers know, I have long argued that the problem is not Iran’s enrichment at Natanz, not even to 20 percent. The problem is Iran’s history of clandestine enrichment. Iran wants to change the narrative to focus on the West’s objections to its arguably legitimate activities. Why we keep helping them do that is beyond me.

In the end, I don’t think it makes much difference either way.

Until then, the full text of the agreement is on the Turkish CNN website:

(17 May 2010)

Having met in Tehran, Islamic Republic of Iran, the undersigned have agreed on the following Declaration:

1) We reaffirm our commitment to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and in accordance with the related articles of the NPT, recall the right of all State Parties, including the Islamic Republic of Iran, to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy (as well as nuclear fuel cycle including enrichment activities) for peaceful purposes without discrimination.

2) We express our strong conviction that we have the opportunity now to begin a forwardlooking process that will create a positive, constructive, non-confrontational atmosphere leading to an era of interaction and cooperation.

3) We believe that the nuclear fuel exchange is instrumental in initiating cooperation in different areas, especially with regard to peaceful nuclear cooperation including nuclear power plant and research reactors construction.

4) Based on this point the nuclear fuel exchange is a starting point to begin cooperation and a positive constructive move forward among nations. Such a move should lead to positive interaction and cooperation in the field of peaceful nuclear activities replacing and avoiding all kinds of confrontation through refraining from measures, actions and rhetorical statements that would jeopardize Iran’s rights and obligations under the NPT.

5) Based on the above, in order to facilitate the nuclear cooperation mentioned above, the Islamic Republic of Iran agrees to deposit 1200 kg LEU in Turkey. While in Turkey this LEU will continue to be the property of Iran. Iran and the IAEA may station observers to monitor the safekeeping of the LEU in Turkey.

6) Iran will notify the IAEA in writing through official channels of its agreement with the above within seven days following the date of this declaration. Upon the positive response of the Vienna Group (US, Russia, France and the IAEA) further details of the exchange will be elaborated through a written agreement and proper arrangement between Iran and the Vienna Group that specifically committed themselves to deliver 120 kg of fuel needed for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR).

7) When the Vienna Group declares its commitment to this provision, then both parties would commit themselves to the implementation of the agreement mentioned in item 6. Islamic Republic of Iran expressed its readiness to deposit its LEU (1200 kg) within one month. On the basis of the same agreement the Vienna Group should deliver 120 kg fuel required for TRR in no later than one year.

8) In case the provisions of this Declaration are not respected Turkey, upon the request of Iran, will return swiftly and unconditionally Iran’s LEU to Iran.

Update | 2:47 pm The White House has issued a statement that doesn’t exactly convey enthusiasm for the offer.


Office of the Press Secretary


May 17, 2010

Statement by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Iran

We acknowledge the efforts that have been made by Turkey and Brazil. The proposal announced in Tehran must now be conveyed clearly and authoritatively to the IAEA before it can be considered by the international community. 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. While it would be a positive step for Iran to transfer low-enriched uranium off of its soil as it agreed to do last October, Iran said today that it would continue its 20% enrichment, which is a direct violation of UN Security Council resolutions and which the Iranian government originally justified by pointing to the need for fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor. Furthermore, the Joint Declaration issued in Tehran is vague about Iran’s willingness to meet with the P5+1 countries to address international concerns about its nuclear program, as it also agreed to do last October.

The United States will continue to work with our international partners, and through the United Nations Security Council, to make it clear to the Iranian government that it must demonstrate through deeds – and not simply words – its willingness to live up to international obligations or face consequences, including sanctions. Iran must take the steps necessary to assure the international community that its nuclear program is intended exclusively for peaceful purposes, including by complying with U.N. Security Council resolutions and cooperating fully with the IAEA. We remain committed to a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear program, as part of the P5+1 dual track approach, and will be consulting closely with our partners on these developments going forward.