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Iran's Geneva Offer on Nukes: Progress for Both Sides

Tony Karon

A view of what is believed to be a uranium-enrichment facility near Qom, Iran, is seen in this satellite photograph released September 25, 2009. DigitalGlobe / Reuters

Hawks in Washington and elsewhere may have viewed Thursday's talks
with Iran as a mere formality, a box to be checked along the way to
harsher sanctions or military action to stop the country's nuclear
program. Tehran plainly had other ideas. The Iranians' flexibility and
the concrete proposals to which they agreed at the Geneva meeting will,
if implemented, at least for the moment largely neutralize efforts to
muster new sanctions, much less military action against Tehran — and
all without necessarily changing the fundamentals of Iran's nuclear

The Obama Administration last week sought to turn up the heat on
the issue by issuing an ultimatum over Iran's newly disclosed
enrichment facility at Qom: Submit the site to full inspection by the
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), or else face an immediate
push for new sanctions. But, if anything, that demand simply teed up
what can be viewed as a diplomatic win-win situation: Having disclosed
the site's existence to the IAEA a few days before President Obama's dramatic press conference
in Pittsburgh, Tehran was clearly intending to submit to inspections
there — it does, after all, claim to be operating within the rules set
by the international nuclear watchdog. It was easy, then, for Iran to
agree to inspections that amount to standard IAEA practice, and for
Western diplomats at the same time to portray Tehran's agreement to
inspections as a response to pressure. Indeed, President Obama's
warning after the talks that Iran must admit inspectors "within two
weeks" seemed like an attempt to neutralize the expected criticism over
a perceived easing of pressure on Iran.

The even more significant news from Geneva was Iran's agreement, in
principle, to a proposal under which it would ship most of its current
stockpile of low-enriched uranium to Russia for further enrichment, and
then to France to be turned into fuel rods to power a Tehran reactor
used for medical research. The details are to be negotiated under IAEA
auspices in Vienna on October 18, but if the scheme is implemented, it
would be a major confidence-building measure: Iran's current stockpile
of low-enriched uranium (LEU) has been cited as Exhibit A in dire
warnings that it is drawing perilously close to bomb-making capability,
on the grounds that if further enriched, that stockpile could already
provide enough materiel for a single bomb. But the deal hammered out at
Geneva would turn three quarters of it from its current gas form into
solid fuel rods, which are extremely difficult to turn into
weapons-grade material.

"The potential advantage of [the deal to turn Iranian uranium into
reactor fuel in Russia and France], if it's implemented, is that it
would significantly reduce Iran's LEU stockpile, which itself is a
source of anxiety in the Middle East and elsewhere," said a senior U.S.
official at the talks who requested anonymity. That, he added, "would
be a positive interim step to help build confidence so that we'd have
more diplomatic space to pursue Iran's compliance with its

But while Administration and European officials presented Iran's
moves as a response to mounting pressure from the West, Iran analyst
Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, says
they're missing the point: "For Tehran, this agreement to reprocess LEU
that it created in defiance of the Western insistence that Iran cannot
be allowed to enrich uranium represents a tacit acceptance of
enrichment in Iran," says Parsi. "The Iranians will view this as an
important change in the U.S. position on enrichment, focusing instead
on transforming the LEU into fuel rods in order to remove doubts about
what Iran intends to do with the material being enriched in its

Until now the U.S. position, strongly backed by France and Israel,
has been that Iran should not be allowed to maintain a
uranium-enrichment capability even for peaceful purposes, because such
a capability could be transformed to create bomb material. President
Bush even spoke of preventing Iran from attaining the "know-how" to
enrich uranium. Earlier this year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
insisted that Iran did not have the right to the full nuclear fuel
cycle, which is available to all signatories to the NPT (which includes
Iran). The Iranians flatly reject the demand that they forego the right
to enrichment for energy purposes, insisting that their nuclear
"rights" are not up for negotiation. But many in Washington and beyond
have argued that the goal of preventing Iran from enriching uranium is
no longer attainable, and that the international community's focus
should be on strengthening safeguards against weaponization of nuclear
material there. To the extent that non-proliferation, rather than
reversing Iran's uranium enrichment program, is the goal,
implementation of the agreements reached in Geneva would be a big win
for the West.

If Iran had been hell-bent on turning its stockpiles of LEU into a
bomb, as many hawks have claimed, the latest agreements amount to a
significant setback. But if Iran's goal had, as some analysts have long
suggested, been simply to acquire "breakout" capacity through an
above-board civilian nuclear energy program — that is, the ability to
repurpose its nuclear energy to build a bomb relatively quickly if, at
some point in the future, it chose to opt out of the Nonproliferation
Treaty — it may be more important to win acceptance of uranium
enrichment, under international monitoring, on Iranian soil.

Of course, the diplomatic process is only just beginning, and the two
sides may have very different end points in mind. But right now,
they're making progress on the issue where progress seems most
possible: strengthening safeguards against Iran weaponizing nuclear
material, rather than preventing it from creating that nuclear material
in the first place.

— With reporting by Massimo Calabresi/Washington, Bruce Crumley/Paris and Catherine Mayer/London

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