November 10, 2009

On October 21, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei, presented a draft of an agreement to enrich a significant portion of Iran’s nuclear materials for medical usage in Russia and France. The deal emerged out of covert multiparty talks addressing Iran’s request to buy nuclear fuel to replenish its diminishing supply at the Tehran Research Reactor. The United States, Russia, France, Iran and the IAEA participated in high-level discussions to determine the details of the proposal, which Iran agreed to in principle during P5+1 talks in Geneva on October 1.

ElBaradei gave the four countries the deadline of October 23 to respond to the proposal. The United States, Russia and France responded positively, whereas Iran declared that it needed more time to review the proposal. On October 29, Iran gave a preliminary answer to the IAEA, which has not been followed by a final answer. Iran is believed to have sought changes that it knew would be unacceptable to the other parties.

The Proposal
Iran would ship 1,200 kg (the approximate amount required for enrichment to make one nuclear weapon) of its roughly 1,700 kg of known low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia by the end of the year. Russia would enrich the uranium to 19.75 percent from about 3.5 percent and send it to France for conversion into fuel rods or plates. These would be returned to Iran by the end of 2010 to be used to make medical isotopes at the Tehran Research Reactor. The United States would be involved with upgrading “safety and instrumentation” at the plant.

The agreement would have likely delayed Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear weapon by removing most of its LEU. Based on the current level of production, it would take Iran 15 months to replenish this amount of LEU. At the same time, the agreement would have given implicit international acceptance to Iran’s enrichment of uranium.

Iran’s Nuclear Program
Iran claims that its nuclear program is for civilian purposes only. It has two uranium enrichment sites, one in Natanz and one near Qom. As of August 2009, Natanz has a total number of 8,308 centrifuges that are either “enriching uranium, under vacuum, or installed.” It is intended to house over 47,000 centrifuges by 2015. The recently revealed Qom facility can hold up to 3,000 centrifuges. The gas centrifuge process is a common method of enriching uranium isotopes, a key step in the production of nuclear fuel.

The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate assessed that, “Iran probably would be technically capable of producing enough HEU [highly enriched uranium] for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame.” Israeli and European intelligence experts, however, disagree with the NIE’s conclusion that Iran stopped its nuclear weaponization program in 2003. They do, however, share an informal assessment that should Iran choose to do so, it is capable of building a nuclear weapon within 18 months.

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