A deadline from the head of the UN's nuclear agency, Muhammad el-Baradei, is approaching for Iran as well as Russia, France, and the United States for consideration of a plan that envisages Iran sending some 75 percent of its low-enriched uranium reserves abroad for conversion into fuel.
Under the proposal, put forward in Vienna on October 21, the uranium converted abroad would be sent back to Tehran to fuel a reactor producing medical isotopes.
Analyst Shannon Kile of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute says the virtue of this proposal is that it would remove from Iranian hands the quantity of enriched uranium needed for bomb-making.
"The advantages of the deal are that worries about Iran enriching uranium for use in nuclear weapons would be temporarily reduced because most of Iran's low-enriched uranium would now be sent out of the country," Kile said.
The uranium would be shipped to Russia for processing into fuel rods -- a form which cannot be used for nuclear weapons.
But Kile notes the relief would only be temporary. Experts estimate that if three-quarters of Iran's present declared stock of low-enriched uranium is removed and processed, it would take only about a year for Tehran to rebuild its stocks to the present level -- which is approximately enough for one bomb.
There is a further downside for the international community in that such a deal would lend Iran the semblance of responsible cooperation with the international community, while not lessening the risk that Iran has a secret nuclear weapons program hidden behind its civil program.
"The disadvantage of the deal is that it could legitimize Iran's nuclear enrichment program in the eyes of many countries around the world and it will put pressure on the UN Security Council to take back its resolutions demanding that Tehran end its enrichment program," Kile said.
In view of this, Kile sees the main value of the el-Baradei plan as being only an initial confidence-building measure among the parties to the dispute. It does not lessen the danger that Iran could one day break its commitment not to develop nuclear weapons under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
"The concern is that at some point Iran will break out of the NPT, and decide to re-enrich its low-enriched uranium to the higher weapons grade, and it's much easier to do that if you start with low-enriched uranium than if you have natural uranium,” he said. “Iran in theory would be able to do that in a relatively short time.”
If Tehran decides to agree to the el-Baradei plan, it could also expect to benefit in that the agreement would deflect attention from demands for Iran to be more forthcoming about other aspects of its nuclear program.
After all, only recently the Iranian government disclosed that it was building a previously secret enrichment center deep under a mountain near the city of Qom.