I’m inexplicably late on this (I just kept writing about other stuff instead), but the New York Times reported Monday that negotiators are putting together a compromise framework for the nuclear deal that would allow Iran to keep more of its centrifuges active while requiring it to ship all or nearly all of its stockpiled enriched uranium (and any uranium it enriches in the future, for a certain period of time) to Russia for conversion into fuel rods for Iran’s Bushehr commercial reactor. Gareth Porter at IPS News was actually reporting this story a full week ago, but there’s obviously a significance in the fact that it’s now been picked up by the Newspaper of Record. David Sanger’s piece for the NYT actually doesn’t get the technical details on this compromise quite right (he suggests that Russia would be enriching the uranium for Iran, which is wrong), so I’m going with Porter’s piece as the definitive report:
The key to the new approach is Iran’s willingness to send both its existing stockpile of low enriched uranium (LEU) as well as newly enriched uranium to Russia for conversion into fuel for power plants for an agreed period of years.
In the first official indication of the new turn in the negotiations, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Marzieh Afkham acknowledged in a briefing for the Iranian press Oct. 22 that new proposals combining a limit on centrifuges and the transfer of Iran’s LEU stockpile to Russia were under discussion in the nuclear negotiations.
The goal for the U.S. in these talks has been closely tied to the concept of “breakout time,” or the length of time it would take the Iranians to highly enrich enough uranium to build one nuclear bomb, if they decided to do so. The longer the breakout time, the thinking goes, the more time the rest of the world would have to stop them from building the bomb, by whatever means necessary. Breakout time is a garbage metric for a lot of reasons (for one thing the whole concept assumes Iran will formally declare its intentions to make a nuclear weapon, which would be incredibly stupid), but the U.S. negotiators hitched themselves to that wagon a long time ago so there’s no budging them now. The demand that Iran’s breakout time be increased to something like 12 months (it’s probably in the range of about 3 months right now) is usually taken to mean that Iran will have to reduce its number of operating centrifuges by something on the order of 90%. That’s simply not going to happen, particularly not when even the Iranian public would be sharply opposed to a deal under those terms.
But there are other ways to solve the breakout “Rubik’s Cube,” as it’s often termed, and one way that allows Iran to keep more centrifuges running is an agreement to eliminate or at least drastically reduce its stockpiles of low enriched uranium. LEU is already well on its way to being bomb fuel (it’s technically harder to enrich uranium the first ~5% than it is to get from there to the ~90% needed for a bomb), so the less LEU Iran has on hand, the longer it would take to produce enough HEU for a bomb. The Iranians have been storing their LEU in oxide form under the terms of the JPOA interim agreement, which puts it a step farther away from being highly enriched (the oxide has to be reconverted to a gas before you can continue the process), but not a major step. However, if that stockpiled oxide, as well as the uranium Iran enriches in the future, is converted by the Russians into fuel rods, it would be much harder for Iran to convert it back into gas for further enrichment, at least not without building the kind of specialized facilities that would probably be detected.
The Iranians have denied agreeing to ship their LEU to Russia for conversion, but that’s probably a technical dodge. They won’t formally “agree” to any element of a deal until the whole deal is in place, so even if they’ve agreed to this idea in principle they can deny actually agreeing to it in practice. But maybe the best sign that something is afoot is this report from yesterday’s Los Angeles Times that the Iranians are saying the U.S. has agreed to allow Iran to keep 6000 centrifuges running, up from a demand for 1000 or less when the talks started and a more recent insistence on a maximum of 4000. It’s unlikely that the American negotiators are coming up that far from their original demands without getting something from the Iranians in return.
As Porter tells it, the big hangup in terms of this compromise may be whether Russia and Iran can work out a deal for the uranium conversion. Russia has been making good money supplying and enriching the fuel for Bushehr itself; if it has to use Iranian LEU for the conversion then not only does it lose the revenue from selling Iran its own uranium, but it incurs extra costs associated with using Iran’s LEU:
Anton Khlopkov, director of the Center for Energy and Security Studies in Moscow, told IPS that the Russian acceptance of Iranian LEU would pose serious commercial issues for Russia.
It would lose significant profits it expected from doing the enrichment itself by agreeing to use Iranian LEU for conversion into fuel assemblies rather than uranium available in Russia. Iranian uranium is much more expensive than the uranium to which Russia has access, Khlopkov said.
Iran also wants to do at least some of the enrichment for the new reactors to be built, which would increase the compensation required for the deal.
You would think that Iran or somebody will have to compensate Russia for any lost revenue in order to make this work. Sanger’s piece in the NYT assumes that Russia will be paid for converting the LEU to fuel and notes, correctly I think, that this compromise would scratch Vladimir Putin’s itch to be at the center of important affairs, but there are other considerations here as well. For one thing, Russian-Iranian relations are at a high point right now, but there is deep historical ambivalence between the two countries as well as recent evidence that the Iranians can’t necessarily trust Russia to uphold its end of a deal like this. Russia also has an incentive to muck up a potential deal in order to keep Iranian oil off the world energy market where it would compete with Russian oil.
Still, if this story is accurate, it’s another bit of good news for the nuclear talks. Obviously it remains to be seen whether any real gains can be made, but at least it appears like the sides are talking and working on new compromises.