Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad says his country is now ready to send its low-enriched uranium abroad for further enrichment -- as requested by the United Nations -- under a deal aimed at easing concerns about the Iranian nuclear program.
Does Ahmadinejad's announcement reflect genuine change in Iran's position or is Iran trying to prevent the adoption of more sanctions? A nonproliferation expert tells RFE/RL that the devil is in the details. Shannon Kile, a senior nonproliferation expert and researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Institute, discusses Iran's apparent shift with RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari.
RFE/RL: Iran seems to have changed its position regarding the offer to send it uranium abroad for further enrichment. How genuine do you think the shift is?Shannon Kile:
I personally think that President Ahmadinejad genuinely wants to reach some sort of fuel-exchange deal. I think part of the problem in reaching the deal with the 5+1 states [Editor's Note: permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany] has in fact been the inability of President Ahmadinejad to get all of the leadership in Tehran on board, in particular the conservatives in the Iranian parliament.
Shannon Kile is a senior nonproliferation expert at the Stockholm Peace Institute
So I think it remains to be seen whether this latest statement by President Ahmadinejad will actually enjoy full domestic backing inside of Iran. I think that is something we need to look at first before we can reach any kind of conclusions about what the likely prospects of the deal would be with the 5+1 states. RFE/RL: In the past, President Ahmadinejad and other officials who are in charge of the nuclear case had objected to the offer. Now President Ahmadinejad is saying that Iran has nothing against the deal. What does the statement indicate and what does it mean? Kile:
Well, I think they had objected to the original offer that was submitted in October 2009. President Ahmadinejad had supported it but later it ran into opposition, especially inside the Iranian parliament, but also elsewhere within the Iranian leadership.
I think we need to look at what President Ahmadinejad's recent statement indicates. First of all, how much low enriched uranium is Iran willing to ship out of the country? The original October agreement indicated that Iran would send out about 70 percent of its existing inventory of low-enriched uranium and of course, for the Western powers, that was one of the main reasons to enter into the deal because it would effectively mean Iran would not be able to use that low-enriched uranium stockpile to make a nuclear weapon, if indeed it has a secret nuclear-weapon program.
The other thing we should look at is whether Iran is willing to actually ship this fuel, at least in the initial stages, out of the country. We heard some reports earlier this month that Iran would be willing to engage in the fuel-exchange deal that at least in the initial stages would only be on Iranian territory -- Kish Island has been mentioned. Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said that was necessary as a way to establish confidence that the Western powers were acting in good faith, so I think that remains to be cleared up as well.RFE/RL: Why do you think President Ahmadinejad is interested in reaching a deal. Is it because of the threat of tougher sanctions?Kile:
I think it's also in part because the Tehran research reactor is actually going to be running out of fuel in 2010, approximately, so the reactor ought to shut down and that's the only facility in Iran that makes medical isotopes.
No one thinks that reactor has any sort of clandestine weapon use at all, and again I think that we'll simply have to see what President Ahmadinejad means in practical terms. Is he really willing to send the fuel out of the country in the initial stages or will it be reverting back to the plan that was put forward last month by Foreign Minister Mottaki?RFE/RL: Could the reports of U.S. deployments of a missile-defense system in the Persian Gulf countries be the reason for Iran's apparent shift? Kile:
No. I think this is something that is probably independent of that, I don't think the Iranians would take the deployment of missile defense too seriously. Now, having said that, there are indications and reports that Iran has today test fired a new satellite carrying rocket but I don't think that those two issues are really connected.
RFE/RL: If the change in Iran's position is genuine, what's next? Should Iran officially inform the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)? Kile:
Yes, that's correct, the deal would be done through the auspices of the IAEA. It sounds like what is happening here is Iran is looking for some sort of arrangement with the IAEA where the exchange would take place on an accelerated time schedules so that instead of the low-enriched uranium being out of the country for one year, it would be out of the country for four to five months.
As a practical matter it would be very difficult for France and Russia to fabricate the fuel needed for the Tehran research reactor in that time frame, so that's one of the details that will have to be discussed.