How We'll Know if Iran Nuclear Talks Are Working

Resolving a relatively minor research reactor could break the deadlock on wider talks

Iran and world powers are inching toward resuming nuclear negotiations. After a year's standoff, Iranian chief negotiator Saeed Jalili and European Union foreign affairs representative Catherine Ashton meet today in Geneva. This preliminary discussion will set the framework for further talks, which are more urgent than ever.

On the agenda is the deadlocked deal, proposed by the so-called Vienna Group of France, Russia, and the U.S., to refuel the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), used primarily to produce medical isotopes. This issue, though relatively minor compared to Iran's alleged nuclear weapons research, has become a surrogate measure of Iran's good intentions. If successful, the TRR deal could serve as a segue to broader engagement. While the Vienna Group addresses the TRR, parallel political negotiations with Tehran will be handled by the P5+1: the permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany. These separate talks could cover a wide range of issues, from agricultural cooperation to Iran's controversial nuclear program as a whole.

Though a successful deal on the TRR wouldn't solve the global concerns over Iran's nuclear ambitions, it would be a significant--and necessary--first step. The Vienna Group and Iran insist that a proposal is on the table but there are growing disagreements about the terms.

Changed Circumstances

In June 2009, Iran asked the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for permission to buy fuel on the international market for its medical isotope reactor, which runs on uranium enriched to 20 percent, far below what's required for weapons. That October, it received a peculiar offer. The Vienna Group suggested that Tehran trade some of its stockpiled low-enriched uranium (LEU), enriched to only 3.5 percent, for readymade reactor fuel. The U.S. had noticed that Iran's 1,200 kg of LEU could produce either 20 years' worth of fuel for the reactor or one crude nuclear bomb. The exchange would have temporarily prolonged Iran's time to a bomb and, perhaps even more importantly, it would have built much-needed confidence between Iran and the West that nuclear issues can be successfully resolved.

Iran agreed to the exchange, but negotiations stalled over the timing of the handover, with the U.S.-led negotiators insisting that Iran ship out its LEU immediately but Iran preferring to wait until the reactor fuel was delivered. Now, resuming negotiations one year later, the U.S. faces new challenges. Iran has steadily chugged forward with uranium enrichment, having produced another ton and a half of LEU since last October. And, in part to apply pressure to deadlocked negotiations, Iran began enriching some uranium to 20 percent, ostensibly to produce its own TRR fuel. This move could increase Iran's breakout potential and cut its time to a bomb by half.

Sticking Points

The Vienna Group will, at the very least, demand that Iran stop enriching uranium to 20 percent and hand over its stockpile. Iran sends mixed signals on its position here. In late August, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad echoed earlier statements that, with proper fuel guarantees, Iran would be willing to stop the higher enrichment. However, the parliament passed a law in July requiring the enrichment to continue. If Iran is guaranteed that it will receive the fuel, it will probably ship out all of its existing 20 percent material and to stop enrichment. Tehran, as a caveat, will probably issue statements declaring that it will never give up the right to enrich to whatever level it wants.

Deciding on the amount of LEU swapped for reactor fuel will be tricky. The State Department says "the proposal would have to be updated reflecting ongoing enrichment activity by Iran over the ensuing year" and has floated suggestions for shipping out 2,000 kg; almost twice as much as it asked for last October. Tehran has decried this hike as "an excuse [for Washington] not to come to the negotiating table," as representative to the IAEA Ali Asghar Soltanieh put it. Ironically, the State Department proposal would give Iran more nuclear fuel than it needs for the Tehran reactor while still leaving it with enough LEU for a bomb.

The Big Picture

In the wake of the UN Security Council's latest round of crippling sanctions on Iran this summer, the U.S. clearly believes that it has Iran on the run and plans to press its advantage. But this could be a mistake if it means missing, or even delaying, the fuel swap. Getting one ton of LEU out of Iran was a worthwhile goal last October and it still is today. Better to pocket those winnings and use the agreement to provide momentum for more wide-ranging discussions than to allow more delay. Refueling the Tehran reactor could have been a simple technical matter that disproved Iran's constant refrain that it cannot get nuclear fuel from the West. Instead, it has been crushed under the weight of political baggage. The result is that failure here risks derailing the wider negotiations and leaving Iran still enriching 20 percent uranium. Pressing for a deal shaped around last year's proposal, plus disposition of the remaining 20 percent uranium, will call Iran's bluff and tell us whether the broader negotiations have any chance of moving forward.