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.
There is one possibility that has been gaining momentum over the past few years, but it has taken a backseat to sanctions and covert actions. The IAEA Board of Governors approved the creation of a nuclear fuel bank in 2010 with the financial support of Warren Buffett and his organization, The Nuclear Threat Initiative, as well as funding from the United States, the United Kingdom, Norway, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. President Barack Obama expressed his support for a fuel bank shortly after taking office in his 2009 Prague speech and again in March of this year. Kazakhstan has offered to host a nuclear fuel bank under IAEA auspices as a way to curb nuclear proliferation and plans to open it late next year. The plans call for having Russia enrich the uranium before it is stored.
The logistics behind a nuclear fuel bank are straightforward. First, the bank would provide a source of low-enriched uranium to states that are in compliance with IAEA safeguard obligations. This would allow states to use nuclear energy while obviating the need to spend the time and money, not to mention the expertise, on enriching uranium. The fuel bank would also ideally be free from any political considerations, so states would not worry about losing their supply of fuel in the event of any international disputes. Second, the fuel bank would help reduce the ambiguity surrounding dual-use technology, an issue that underlies current unease over Iran’s nuclear program. Since states would receive the uranium already enriched in the form of fuel rods, without the possibility of further enriching it to weapons-grade levels, the fuel would have only peaceful uses.
A nuclear fuel bank would provide benefits to both the United States and Iran. U.S. officials would know that the nuclear fuel used by Iran was limited to low-enriched uranium for energy and research purposes. Additionally, Washington would have an idea of the amount of fuel imported by Iran, which would clarify Tehran’s intentions. Iran would have a guaranteed source of low-enriched uranium for the Tehran Research Reactor, which irradiates uranium to be used for medical research, without the perception of Western interference. The IAEA would provide, from Iran’s perspective, a more impartial and fair oversight and fuel-delivery system than simply the P5+1 could. Importing the uranium, rather than enriching it, also would reduce Iran’s costs. Finally, Iran’s nuclear program, under the IAEA’s watch, would be more transparent, reducing the need for Western covert operations intended to disrupt the program in the wake of any ambiguity surrounding Iran’s nuclear intentions.
However, there is a need for caution on the feasibility of a nuclear fuel bank and Iran’s willingness to participate. First, Kazakhstan’s nuclear fuel bank will be ready in mid- to late-2013 at the earliest. Israel, which has claimed that the window for a diplomatic resolution to the issue is quickly closing, may not feel comfortable waiting another year. Moreover, plenty can happen in a year’s time, and it’s possible that a new U.S. president, with a more hawkish stance toward Iran, will occupy the White House come January. Any number of events, including an Israeli strike on Iran’s program, are also outside of U.S. control. But if a deal is indeed struck, the P5+1 can provide fuel assurances for Iran’s medical research until the fuel bank is operational.
Getting Iran to agree to a nuclear fuel bank may pose other challenges. While Iran initially supported the idea of a nuclear fuel bank in 2009, it later called the idea “nuclear apartheid.” But bluster aside, it should be noted that Iran’s objections to the fuel-bank proposal stem from its perception that the fuel bank would infringe on the rights of states to develop nuclear energy. Since an agreement with the P5+1 would allow Iran to maintain its right to enrichment while providing it with reserves for medical research, Iran might support the idea under the right conditions. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad expressed support in late 2011 for renewing a proposed uranium fuel swap with Russia. In fact, Iran previously has imported uranium enriched to 20 percent from Argentina for use in the Tehran Research Reactor, so there is both precedent and tacit support from Iran for the importation process.
President Obama has outlined a vision of a nuclear-free world and stated that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable, while Mitt Romney has said that if he is elected, Iran will not obtain a nuclear bomb. A nuclear fuel bank should be acceptable to both candidates, by preventing states—including Iran—from enriching their own uranium and reducing the chance of proliferation. Additionally, a fuel bank’s customers would not be limited to Iran—any country in that wishes to develop nuclear energy also would have access to the fuel bank.
Of course, all of this is contingent upon both sides, particularly Iran, actually wanting to make a deal. It may turn out that Iran’s ultimate goal is possessing nuclear weapons. Or Iran may feel that its fuel-production capabilities are too important to its national identity to outsource them to a fuel bank. In these cases, the fuel-bank proposal would not satisfy Iran’s aims, leaving Tehran little reason to accept a deal.
But the option of a fuel bank would test Iran’s true motives and present a diplomatic solution that could bring Iran back in compliance with IAEA safeguards. If accepted, the deal also would keep a safe distance between Iran and a nuclear bomb—and war with the United States and Israel.