M A I N   N E W S

To duck curbs, Iran ready for nuke fuel swap
By Raj Chengappa

Swap deal simplified

Under the agreement between Iran, Turkey and Brazil, Tehran will ship 1,200 kg of low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Turkey in exchange for fuel for a research reactor.

Three countries stress their commitment on nuclear non-proliferation and say they respect rights of other countries in nuclear energy progress.

Turkey to keep Iran’s LEU. The IAEA and Iran can monitor the fuel.

Iran to inform the IAEA of its agreement within 7 days.

It’s being regarded as a major diplomatic coup that could spell the beginning of the end of the isolation of Iran from world affairs. On the sidelines of the G-15 summit being attended by India, a smiling Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva dramatically announced that the three countries had arrived at a deal that could possibly break the nuclear stalemate, stave off sanctions being contemplated by the UN and the US against Iran and bring the contentious issue back to the negotiating table.

After almost 18 hours of negotiation between the three countries, Iran, as part of the deal, agreed to send much of its low-enriched nuclear material to Turkey in exchange of fuel consisting of medium- enriched uranium to be supplied by the Vienna Group. The Vienna Group consists of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — the US, Russia, France, Britain and China — and Germany that had engaged in talks with Iran in October 2009.

The Group had then proposed that Iran send its low- enriched uranium to Russia in return for medium- enriched fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor that is used for medical purposes, especially to treat cancer patients. But talks failed with Iran wanting to swap only small quantities of fuel and not its large stockpile apart from refusing to ship these out to a third country.

The deal comes at a time when Iran faces another round of stringent sanctions from both UN and US after it failed to convince the IAEA that its nuclear programme had no military intent to it. In November, India along with other IAEA board members had voted in favour of imposing fresh UN sanctions on Iran for violating its international commitment to ensure that its nuclear programme was being developed only for peaceful uses.

Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty regime (NPT) which had enabled it to received nuclear technology for civilian use from other NPT signatories, including the US in return for committing that it would not be diverted or misused for military purposes. In 2002, Iran was discovered to have clandestinely set up a uranium enrichment plant and a heavy water unit without informing the IAEA. Since then major powers led by the US have got the UN to impose severe sanctions and refuses to lift them till Tehran's comes clean and puts an end to all clandestine use.

Apart from curbs on banking and trade, heavy sanctions had been imposed on some key public sector enterprises of Iran and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Council, the striking arm of the current regime. Iran faced increasing diplomatic and economic isolation that had already aversely impacted economic growth.

While the deal doesn’t get Iran off the hook it is being looked upon as a major confidence-building measure and the first big step towards ending the years of diplomatic and economic isolation. Soon after the deal was announced Ahmadinejad wanted major powers to “enter talks with Iran based on honesty, justice and mutual respect.” There are still plenty of details of the deal that need to be clarified and many nations see it as another tactical ploy by Iran to buy time to develop its nuclear weapons capability and stave off debilitating sanctions till it does so.

There is little doubt though that the deal is a major breakthrough in the almost decade-long standoff between Iran and much of the world led by the US. Iran though maintains that it is against nuclear weapons and states that the religion it follows forbids the use or development of such destructive weapons. Just last month, a combative Ahmadinejad had held a nuclear disarmament conference in Tehran which he accused US of being the worst violator of nuclear norms by exploding atom bombs over two Japanese cities during the World War II.

Iran has been stealthily working on developing a nuclear weapon capability. The situation in the Middle East remains volatile and if Iran succeeds in developing the bomb it could radically alter the security balance in a region critical to the world’s energy security. Israel does have nuclear weapons capability and the danger of a nuclear conflagration would be immense if Iran develops the bomb.

The IAEA has been increasingly critical of suspected Iranian violations to the NPT. These included the revelation of a second uranium enrichment plant at Fardow in addition to the one at Natanz. The swap deal that has been worked out is to ensure that Iran does not have enough stockpile of uranium to build a bomb.

Currently Iran is estimated to have 1,500 kg of 3.5 per cent (low) enriched uranium. For running research reactors like the Tehran facility for medical purposes, the uranium needs to be medium enriched to 20 per cent. According to the deal, Iran would swap 1,200 kg of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium in exchange for 120 kg of medium-enriched uranium that is to be supplied by the Vienna Group.

For making weapons grade material, uranium has to be enriched to at least 90 per cent. At least 300 kg of this highly enriched uranium is needed to develop an atom bomb. By keeping Iran’s low enriched uranium stockpiles to around 3,000 kg, the world hopes that it would prevent it from crossing the threshold of nuclear material needed to make a bomb.

There is no guarantee though that Iran has much more uranium than it has declared or in the past few months developed sufficient stock for them to enter into this swap deal. But for now as spring spreads good cheer in Tehran the deal ends the long winter that Iran faced on the nuclear front and holds the promise of big things to come. Everyone though is keeping their fingers firmly crossed.





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