Recent talks on Iran’s nuclear program between Tehran and the parties known as P5+1, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, have failed to reach an agreement. But there may yet be some middle ground on which the parties can agree.
A nonproliferation expert present at a July meeting at Iran's mission to the United Nations said that Iran may be open to negotiating on 20 percent uranium enrichment. Iranian statements and the historical record suggest this is a real possibility. By coming to an agreement with Iran over its uranium-enrichment program, centered on fuel assurances from a nuclear fuel bank under control of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the P5+1 could ensure that Iran's nuclear capability is used only for peaceful purposes.
Iran’s uranium-enrichment program is ostensibly about having an indigenous source of enriched uranium for energy and medical research. It’s also a symbol of national prestige and modernity. Any concessions the P5+1 offers Iran must address both of these Iranian interests.
Allowing Iran to continue its own uranium enrichment at the 3.5 percent needed for nuclear energy, while under IAEA inspection, would satisfy part of the energy requirement and all of the need to save face. Iran could maintain its right to peaceful use of nuclear technology under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (assuming Iran agrees to its oversight obligations under the NPT) while keeping a safe distance between low-enriched-uranium efforts for energy and the highly enriched uranium needed to develop a nuclear bomb.
As part of any agreement with the P5+1, Iran also would need to halt uranium enrichment of levels over 3.5 percent and ship its 20 percent stockpile out of the country. Guaranteeing an outside supply of 20 percent-enriched uranium for medical isotope research may prove to be a more difficult venture, both diplomatically and logistically. But there are mechanisms that are in place, or soon will be, to help facilitate the process and provide a long-term solution to the issue.