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Tilting At Windmills In Tehran

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (left) with Iranian counterpart Mahmud Ahmadinejad in Brasilia in November

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (left) with Iranian counterpart Mahmud Ahmadinejad in Brasilia in November

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva heads to Tehran this weekend on a mission that seems quixotic at best. Following talks in Moscow this week, Lula will bring the international community's last, best arguments to persuade Iran to accept the so-called Vienna formula. But is Iran's leadership ready to listen?

Under the terms of the deal, Iran would send 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium to Russia, where it would be further enriched to 20 percent and then sent to France for processing into nuclear fuel rods. Tehran would use the rods to power a 45-year-old, U.S.-made research reactor that produces nuclear isotopes used for medical purposes.

In 1993, Iran paid Argentina $5 million for 23 kilograms of fuel rods for the reactor, in a bargain that also included a major overhaul of the aging reactor itself.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that Iran is free to purchase medical isotopes on the world market without holding some 850,000 Iranian cancer patients hostage to its nuclear ambitions. Doing so would, of course, end the current standoff immediately.

Agreement 'In Principle'

Clearly, the problem of fuel for this old laboratory reactor, or even of obtaining medical isotopes, was not the main reason for the Vienna formula. Everyone involved understood perfectly that the deal was a face-saving offer for Iran, a way for Tehran to back away from its confrontation with the international community without appearing to make any concessions. Most importantly, it would remove from Iran much of its low-enriched uranium, which could potentially be used to make nuclear weapons.

In exchange for a few million dollars' worth of fuel rods, Tehran would send abroad some 75 percent of its low enriched uranium. That seems like a strange deal, considering that Iran has worked relentlessly for 20 years and spent billions of dollars to accumulate its current stockpile, which some experts estimate could be enough to build up to three nuclear bombs.

So why did Iran agree "in principle" to the Vienna deal? Tehran saw it as a way of gaining the International Atomic Energy Agency's recognition of the legitimacy of its uranium-enrichment program and, eventually, opening up the way for it to purchase raw uranium, yellow cake, and nuclear technologies.

Moreover, it appears that Iran's agreement "in principle" did not signify agreement to the specific figure of 1,200 kilograms. Tehran seems to be thinking of a much smaller portion of its stockpile -- some 200-400 kilograms.


From Iran's point of view, it is possible the Vienna formula could still be salvaged. However, the international community -- especially U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- has emphasized repeatedly since the Vienna agreement that the offer made to Iran is not subject to alteration. This take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum is likely to scuttle the deal and send the controversy to the UN Security Council.

In his talks with Kremlin leaders in Moscow, Lula must have been made aware of the daunting impediments to his mission to Tehran, despite Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's welcoming gestures. The joint mission by Lula and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will run into the same intransigence that Russia's leaders encountered in their most recent efforts to reach out to Tehran.

It is likely that when the weekend is over, Lula will head home empty-handed despite statements by both sides that presumably say the talks were "positive, informative, and constructive." But the real result of the 11th-hour mission to Tehran will be that it will provide the Security Council with the justification it needs to adopt a new set of sanctions.

Reza Taghizadeh is a regular contributor to RFE/RL's Radio Farda. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL