Abstract

The nuclear fuel swap that was proposed by the USA in October 2009, accepted by Iran, then rejected, and finally accepted again under conditions rejected by the West, was never a solution to the nuclear crisis. Tangential to the main issues, the deal offered only a temporary respite from the threat posed by Iran’s sensitive nuclear programs. Intended as a confidencebuilding measure, the deal has only sown more suspicion, and the attempt in May 2010 by Brazil and Turkey to renew the agreement served to widen the circle of distrust. Yet the precedent of sending Iranian enriched uranium out of the country and thereby reducing its stockpile still holds promise. The question is whether or not Iran is determined to have a nuclearweapons capability. Even if it is, containment and deterrence policies may help to keep that capability latent, but unrestricted growth of Iran’s enrichment program could still trigger military action.

Key Words

Iran, nuclear, proliferation, uranium enrichment, fuel swap.

Iran’s Need for Reactor Fuel Creates an Opening

Ever since the Iranian nuclear crisis began on a date that might be fixed as 14 August 2002, when an Iranian dissident group revealed the existence of nuclear facilities under construction at Natanz and Arak that Iran had been keeping secret- earnest negotiators, mediators and outside analysts have sought a solution that would give the world confidence that the nuclear program would not be used for weapons purposes. To date, all attempts have failed. The most recent set of diplomatic attempts have centered on a side issue that was sparked by Iran’s June 2009 request to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for assistance in obtaining replacement fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). The TRR is a small facility primarily used for various research activities. Iran wants to use it to produce radioisotopes to treat an estimated 850,000 cancer patients per year and said the TRR would run out of fuel in late 2010. But finding an international supplier for the fuel was no simple proposition, for both political and technical reasons. Only two countries produce this kind of reactor fuel; Argentina and France. In 1993, Argentina supplied the current fuel load, after the reactor was converted from its former use of 93% highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel to run on fuel that is enriched to 19.75%, just below the 20% level that arbitrarily distinguishes HEU from low enriched uranium (LEU). The conversion of the reactor and Argentina’s provision of the 115 kg fuel load was supported by the United States in line with its interest in reducing proliferation risks by eliminating the need for such high levels of enrichment.2 Washington has been discouraging most other nuclear commerce with Iran, however, and the TRR has a chequered history. Notwithstanding its civilian purposes, it was also used between 1988 and 1992 for illicit experiments in plutonium separation, although this was not revealed until several years later.3 Given the international concern about Iran’s nuclear program, Argentina had little interest in potentially causing a problem with the US by offering reactor fuel to Iran. Moreover, Argentina has its own political issues with Iran, given that nation’s alleged role in the 1984 bombing of a Jewish centre in Buenos Aires that resulted in 85 deaths. An Iranian intelligence officer wanted by Interpol over the bombing, Ahmad Vahidi, was appointed Iranian defense minister in August 2009. It would appear that Iran made little effort to persuade Argentina to supply a fuel reload. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad farcically suggested that America itself could provide the fuel reload.4 The US does not produce this kind of reactor fuel and even if it did, both legal restrictions and political realities would make this impossible. Most of the world’s research reactor fuel is produced in France. Cerca, a subsidiary of nuclear-energy company Areva, manufactures several kinds of research reactor fuel as a sideline to its production of fuel for nuclear power plants. But the French government is even more strident in its opposition to Iran’s nuclear program than is the United States and was not disposed to approve a TRR fuel sale either, even though it had no legal prohibitions against doing so. Iran thus had every reason to expect that its request to the IAEA for assistance in obtaining TRR fuel would not be acted upon. It seems very likely that the request was a political ploy, in order to claim an excuse for producing 20% enriched uranium on its own, as indeed it went on to do.5 But this an estimated 850,000 cancer patients per year and said the TRR would run out of fuel in late 2010. But finding an international supplier for the fuel was no simple proposition, for both political and technical reasons. Only two countries produce this kind of reactor fuel; Argentina and France. In 1993, Argentina supplied the current fuel load, after the reactor was converted from its former use of 93% highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel to run on fuel that is enriched to 19.75%, just below the 20% level that arbitrarily distinguishes HEU from low enriched uranium (LEU). The conversion of the reactor and Argentina’s provision of the 115 kg fuel load was supported by the United States in line with its interest in reducing proliferation risks by eliminating the need for such high levels of enrichment.2 Washington has been discouraging most other nuclear commerce with Iran, however, and the TRR has a chequered history. Notwithstanding its civilian purposes, it was also used between 1988 and 1992 for illicit experiments in plutonium separation, although this was not revealed until several years later.3 Given the international concern about Iran’s nuclear program, Argentina had little interest in potentially causing a problem with the US by offering reactor fuel to Iran. Moreover, Argentina has its own political issues with Iran, given that nation’s alleged role in the 1984 bombing of a Jewish centre in Buenos Aires that resulted in 85 deaths. An Iranian intelligence officer wanted by Interpol over the bombing, Ahmad Vahidi, was appointed Iranian defense minister in August 2009. It would appear that Iran made little effort to persuade Argentina to supply a fuel reload. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad farcically suggested that America itself could provide the fuel reload.4 The US does not produce this kind of reactor fuel and even if it did, both legal restrictions and political realities would make this impossible. Most of the world’s research reactor fuel is produced in France. Cerca, a subsidiary of nuclear-energy company Areva, manufactures several kinds of research reactor fuel as a sideline to its production of fuel for nuclear power plants. But the French government is even more strident in its opposition to Iran’s nuclear program than is the United States and was not disposed to approve a TRR fuel sale either, even though it had no legal prohibitions against doing so. Iran thus had every reason to expect that its request to the IAEA for assistance in obtaining TRR fuel would not be acted upon. It seems very likely that the request was a political ploy, in order to claim an excuse for producing 20% enriched uranium on its own, as indeed it went on to do.5 But this