Wednesday, February 24, 2010

China Sends Iran Back to the IAEA

I have an article up at Asia Times entitled China fine-tunes its Iran strategy.

I read the Chinese tea leaves (People’s Daily and Global Times) to come to the conclusion that China wishes to avoid a UN Security Council vote on Iran sanctions. Beijing fears that any UN vote, with a Chinese yea vote or abstention, or even with a nay vote, will serve as the politically enabling factor for harsh national sanctions that the US and key EU countries are teeing up.

I’m afraid that after Copenhagen, his travails in the U.S. Congress and, most importantly because of his strategy of leaving China as the last sanctions domino to fall (instead of giving Beijing face and reassurance by engaging it first and foremost), President Obama is suffering a credibility and mojo deficit in the eyes of the Chinese, and they will be extremely skeptical of any assurances that he can provide Beijing the opportunity to exert a moderating influence on any post-UNSCR rush to national sanctions.

So I concluded that China would recommend to Iran to try to keep this matter bottled up in the IAEA, despite the replacement of the Iran-friendly ElBaradei with the West-tilting new DG, Yukiya Amano.

I supported this inference with Iranian and Chinese reporting of conciliatory Iranian moves toward the IAEA, and declarations of loyal fealty to the NPT.

Today, there was further evidence of an Iranian charm offensive, in the form of a formal letter to the IAEA re-opening the matter of fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR).

The TRR swap is apparently the great lost opportunity of US-Iran nuclear diplomacy.

To a certain extent, the conventional narrative concerning the TRR swap (Iran would ship its 3.5% U235 Low Enriched Uranium to Russia for further enrichment and receive fuel plates for the TRR in return) appears to be correct.

Iran, by not making an open and positive response to the offer when it was officially tendered in October, blew it.

However, I’m of the suspicion that Iran had plenty of help.

The swap was grew out of a request by Iran in June 2009 for help from the IAEA in obtaining new fuel plates for the TRR, an elderly reactor originally provided by the US to the Shah that still produces medical isotopes in Tehran. The Obama administration was brought into the deal, the response from Iran (presumably representing President Ahmadinejad’s views) was positive, and apparently a great deal of open-hand-not-closed-fist excitement ensued in the White House.

However, it would seem largely because of French and Israeli resistance (which, given France’s desire to assert itself in the Levant as a serious power at Iran’s expense, may be one and the same thing), the trust-building measure turned into an adversarial disablement proposal.

According to an authentic-looking internal French government document that was leaked and posted on the Arms Control Wonk website, the French insisted in September that the EU’s “freeze-for freeze” mechanism (a demand, detested by Tehran, that Iran suspend all enrichment work in return for a suspension of sanctions) be part of the deal; that no less than 1200 kg of LEU in a single shipment be involved; and the deal had to be accepted and the LEU had to come out by the end of 2009 before any plates went in.

And, according to the West, it would take about a year to grunt out the 264 pounds of fuel plates (which would be fabricated in France after the Russians enriched the LEU to 19.75%), an assertion that the Iranians found highly dubious.

The way the whole thing played out made Ahmadinejad look like a chump.

Instead of a friendly, historic exchange with the United States (apparently, rapprochement with the United States is not a matter of serious dispute in Iranian circles; the only question is, which political grouping will get to take the credit and reap the rewards), he was supposed to publicly knuckle under to the West in an adversarial process, give up most of his LEU immediately and without negotiation in exchange for nothing, and wait and hope his plates (and political windfall) showed up a year later.

Like I said, Ahmadinejad blew it, but it looks like he had lots of outside and inside help.

If you look at the situation and drew the conclusion that some parties were determined to make sure that Ahmadinejad was deprived of his “Nixon Goes to China” moment with the Great Satan, well, we’re on the same page.

The current Iranian approach to the IAEA on the TRR has been rejected by the United States and we may very well be looking at nothing more than diplomatic kabuki as both sides gird themselves for the struggle to decide whether the Iranian issue is addressed by a UNSC resolution.

That the Obama administration has given up on its noble aim to engage with Iran is indicated by the rather inexplicable decision to acquiesce to Israel’s assumption of a high profile role as sanctions cheerleader to the EU, Russia, and even China.

Israel is, of course, not a member of the NPT or IAEA , allegedly maintains an undeclared and highly destabilizing arsenal of 200+ nuclear warheads, and proliferated in a major way to the South African apartheid regime.

Not exactly the poster child for the NPT and IAEA.

Which may be another reason why the Chinese would tell the Iranians to push the IAEA angle.

The United States might have a compelling reason to dig a grave for the Teheran Research Reactor swap.

Opponents of the deal—call them cynics, cooler heads, Iran-haters, or, perhaps professional paranoiacs—could seize on the problem that the uranium in the fuel plates that Iran got back would be significantly enriched—from 3.5% up to 19.75%--and apparently in a form that could, without much ado, be used as feedstock for enrichment to weapons grade (80%).

According to Arms Control Wonk, the plates in the Tehran Research Reactor are simply sintered U3O8, and Iran already has the chemistry and processing know-how to needed to turn that kind of plate into feedstock for weapons-grade enrichment.

And, at 19.75% enrichment, the West would have already done most of Iran’s enrichment work for it.

Jeffrey Lewis of AWC, offered a useful analogy along these lines: imagine a box filled with 100 tennis balls, of which four are red (U235)and the rest white (U238). To upgrade the red balls to 20% of the total, you have to throw away 80 tennis balls for a ratio of 4 red to 16 white. To get to 80% red balls, you just have to throw away another 15 balls to get your final ratio of 4:1.

The West would be throwing away 80 of the tennis balls on Tehran’s behalf, and apparently it’s relatively trivial for Iran to take care of the remaining 15.

So the wonderful and thrilling humanitarian gesture of providing new fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor could be construed, and probably was construed, by Iran’s legion of informed critics, as a potential acceleration of Iran’s weaponization program.

Oops.

ACW’s Geoffrey Forden proposed that the plates be fabricated as a uranium-beryllium compound, based on the idea that separating out beryllium is a difficult and novel technical task and Iran would have to expend time, money, and conspicuous effort to develop new technology and processes in order to extract the uranium from the fuel plates for the dreaded weaponization breakout.

Unfortunately, just as careful cooks don’t lightly substitute margarine for butter in their recipes, responsible and careful operators of nuclear reactors apparently don’t toss in a brand new type of fuel plate without furrowed brows and lots of technical and safety hand-wringing.

It would be understandable if the Iranians wondered if the US was going to assist Iran with a crash-reengineering and retrofit of the Tehran reactor for the uranium beryllium fuel—and take responsibility if things didn’t go right—and looked at this kind of hocus-pocus with a jaundiced eye.

I suppose, when this chapter in the endless history of the US-Iran nuclear dispute is penned, we’ll find out if the issue of the potential proliferation risk of the new fuel plates was covered ahead of time during the excited White House confabs over Iran’s offer, or came up later as one of those classic “Ms. Titanic-meet-Mr. Iceberg” oh sh*t moments.

If the latter was the case 1) Ahmadinejad would have been suspected of setting a perfidious trap and 2) the White House would backpedaled away from the deal at light speed to avoid appearing to be Iran’s dupe and 3) thrown up a bunch of roadblocks in order to reduce the perceived proliferation and political danger.

In any case, with the help of the revelation of a secret Iranian enrichment facility near Qom (known by Western intelligence for over three years, but somehow not revealed until the eve of the formal conference between Iran and the West on the swap at the beginning of October 2009 and necessitating a critical report by the IAEA in the last month of ElBaradei’s term; bad luck, Mr. Ahmadinejad!), the Tehran Research Reactor deal became a theater for heightened suspicions of Iran’s proliferation intentions and not the confidence-building diplomatic exercise it was originally intended to be.

And the inevitable outcome of suspicion is, apparently, sanctions.

Funny ‘bout that.

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