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Nuclear Expert Sees Standoff In UN-Drafted Fuel Deal With Iran

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad inspects the Natanz nuclear plant.
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad inspects the Natanz nuclear plant.
The European Union is urging Tehran to accept a UN-drafted nuclear-fuel deal designed to alleviate Western concerns that Iran is secretly trying to build nuclear weapons.

Iran has proposed changes to the UN plan and, according to media reports, appears to be rejecting a key element of the deal. Tehran says its nuclear power program is meant only for peaceful purposes -- such as generating electricity.

RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz discusses the latest developments with Frank Barnaby, a nuclear scientist and nonproliferation expert who works for the Oxford Research Group in the United Kingdom:

RFE/RL: The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last week proposed a draft agreement under which Iran would send a single shipment of up to 75 percent of its low-enriched uranium to Russia for further processing. Iran has proposed a counteroffer. Is this really a matter that's up for negotiation? Or is Tehran only in a position to accept the deal or face the consequences -- such as the imposition of tougher UN sanctions?

Frank Barnaby:
Whether the UN would accept a counterproposal is not clear, and also, [there is the question] of where do sanctions come into this. At what stage and to what extent would sanctions be applied if the Iranians won't go along with the UN? So we just have to wait and see what happens. The Iranians are obviously going to stick to their guns. But whether the UN will be equally firm is not clear.

RFE/RL: What are the differences between the IAEA's draft agreement and what Iran is willing to do now?

The major differences are in the amounts of low-enriched uranium that would go [abroad]. Iran has a stock of this material. Does it send it all now, or send it bit by bit? Or would it be that they send the low-enriched uranium that they produce in the future -- because they are producing it all the time, you see.

So the question is, How do they define a batch? Is a batch produced between one date and another, or what? Obviously, the international community would prefer that Iran sends it all and once and get it out of Iran. Iran is clearly going to object to that. They would prefer to send it bit by bit. Maybe they would prefer to send just the future production and not the low-enriched uranium already produced.

RFE/RL: Do you think there is any chance that a compromise can be reached that is based on Iran's reported counterproposal?

I think it is probably the end of the proposal. Both sides are probably pretty firm in their view, and therefore, the consequence will be that the low-enriched uranium will stay in Iran.

RFE/RL: Iran has suggested that it might also simply purchase low-enriched uranium from abroad to be used for its nuclear program. Is that really an option, considering the sanctions regime imposed against Iran by the UN in 2006?

I would think that was impossible. I can't see any way in which Iran could legally purchase low-enriched uranium from abroad.

Chance Of New Sanctions

RFE/RL: How willing do you think Russia and France are to apply more pressure on Iran if it refused to accept the IAEA draft deal on its low-enriched uranium?

I think that Russia will be very loath to put stronger sanctions on. France, of course, would be prepared -- even eager -- to do that. So there will always be that conflict between what Russia wants and what the rest want.

I would not be at all optimistic that these proposals will produce any real result. I think that things will go on as they are with Iran continuing to produce low-enriched uranium at its gas centrifuge plant at Natanz and the international community putting increasing pressure on Iran to stop doing it. But I think Russia will not allow too much pressure to be put on.

So it really is almost a standoff. I don't see how, in the end, the international community will get what it wants -- which is to stop Iran from enriching uranium -- and Iran will continue to refuse to stop it.

RFE/RL: What would happen if Tehran agreed to accept the UN-drafted deal, or some kind of a compromise deal, to send Iran's low-enriched uranium abroad for refining into nuclear fuel?

What one assumes will happen is that the low-enriched uranium Iran has produced after a specific date will be sent to Russia, put into the form of fuel elements -- metal rods to go into Iran's nuclear reactor and possibly enriched more -- and then sent back to Iran for use. I'm not suggesting that that reactor fuel would be usable directly in nuclear weapons. It wouldn't.

RFE/RL: Why do you think Iran wouldn't later use the low-enriched uranium sent to Russia? Could Tehran further enrich that material later after it is sent back to Iran?

I don't think Iran would need to do that. It has an enrichment capability. It may also have a clandestine enrichment capability the IAEA doesn't know about, and it could use that to produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.

Rather than relying on low-enriched [uranium] going to Russia and coming back, they would use their own indigenous centrifuges secretly in a plant to do it. They wouldn't use uranium sent to Russia and sent back.