The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has drafted a nuclear deal which, if approved and eventually honored by Iran--in addition to the U.S., England, France, Russia, China, and Germany (i.e., the P5+1)--would commit Tehran's government to shipping most or all of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia for further enrichment. The refined nuclear fuel, once returned to Iran, would become part of isotopic and medical research. At face value, this appears to be a potential breakthrough in the standoff between Iran and the West.
It seems Iran's acceptance and fulfillment of this deal may be precipitated by its own short-term technical limitations and long-term strategies rather than U.S. pressure or IAEA tact. And Iran still may negotiate the issue further in order to get the best possible terms; regarding American negative reactions as idle threats. Let's face it, Iran holds most of the cards since the U.S. and its allies want a deal on the nuclear issue and the IAEA's director general wants a triumphant end to his term in office.
Yet there may be even more behind the agreement than meets the eye.
Iran currently lacks the capability to further enrich its uranium stockpile in the near future. So agreeing to Russian undertaking of enrichment ensures that Iran will gain nuclear materials capable of inclusion in weapons. Granted, at 19.75 percent enrichment, the fuel rods returned to Iran will still not be very pure. But Iran may be able to extract the uranium from those rods for use in weapons - a possibility the U.S. and its partners fear. The Iranian regime in turn has demanded that France be excluded from the refinement process, probably because it worries the nuclear fuel may never be returned to Iran by a close ally of the U.S. Moreover, Iran may already have sufficient domestic capacity to accumulate further low-enriched stockpiles while the Russians are refining its current one. And if, as has been suggested, Iran's current low-enriched uranium is defective, then Russian enrichment will provide both corrective measures and valuable information to avoid future mistakes.
Including the Russians as production partners in the IAEA agreement has additional advantages for Iran. Russia helped build and fuel the reactor at Bushehr. So if Russia performs the enrichment, nuclear cooperation between Moscow and Tehran will be strengthened. Iran also wishes Russia to fulfill an agreement to supply surface-to-air missiles more advanced than the American Patriot missile system. Those missiles would better safeguard Iran's nuclear facilities from foreign attack. Tehran's politicians expect nuclear cooperation will overcome current stalling by Moscow on that transaction.
Iran benefits as well on the international diplomatic front from the refinement agreement. An air of cooperation with the IAEA may ensure that neither Russia nor China will back further economic sanctions against Iran in the United Nations Security Council. Indeed, even hardline Iranian clerics like ayatollah Ahmad Khatami have confidently asserted: "Prior to the talks, they used to speak of suspension and sanctions against Iran but after the talks, there has not been any word of suspension or sanctions."
By working through the IAEA--which reports to the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council--Iran's autocratic regime regains global legitimacy after this summer's bitterly contested presidential election and violent crackdown on protestors. Cooperation with the IAEA also ensures that Iran's claim to the right of nuclear energy gains full acceptance by the U.S. and its partners.
Over the past few years, Iran's Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, leading opposition cleric Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, and other Shiite mullahs have deemed nuclear weapons haram, or forbidden. But nothing in those fatwas or religious opinions proscribes the Iranian government from achieving a nuclear breakout capacity - much like Japan and Australia have attained.
So in order to ensure Iran's re-inclusion into the global community, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are extending compromises like the current deal with the P5+1 and the IAEA. Yet they are retaining their nation's ability to pursue not only atomic energy but also breakout capability for nuclear weaponization. That may be the best that the world can get from negotiations at the present time. If only the politicians in Tehran would refrain from threatening doom and aiding militancy, the U.S. and its allies may find Iran's nuclear ambitions more palatable. Then Iran would find pathways to security and international engagement opening up without having to yield reasonable national protections.
That, alas, may be asking too much of the hardliners.