Iran goes to Geneva Talks Two — to discuss buying enriched uranium abroad, a big concession

It looks like a major concession. Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad said his country will go to the second round of talks in Geneva with European and American diplomats — to discuss buying enriched uranium from a third party to run its nuclear reactor in Tehran.

Proposals have been made previously that Iran should buy all its enriched uranium abroad and import it — one option would have been through Russia. Iran has made counter-offers to produce — IN IRAN — and to sell abroad to other customers — enriched uranium produced under a consortium of regional or international countries.

But it has never previously offered to rely on an outside supplier.

In this case, it could be that the Iranian President’s offer is to buy MOST IF NOT ALL of the enriched uranium it needs from abroad, while still keeping its own enriched uranium production facility intact and ready to go. if and when needed.

Until now, Iran has insisted on having its own indigenous uranium enrichment “capability” because it cannot be confident that any outside or third-party supplier might oneday decide to interrupt contracted supply arrangements. Iranian officials say that their country’s 30+ years of experience — dating from Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, if not longer — shows that it cannot rely on contracts. Iran still cannot get delivery of spare parts for its civilian airliners that it bought and paid for, prior to the 1979 overthrow of the Shah, and this embargo has been blamed for the precarious state of aircraft safety in Iran, and for several airplane crashes.

Iran has hinted in the past that the “capability” it must have, as a bottom-line, does not necessarily mean full-scale production, but rather at the very least the “capability” to produce its own fuel in case of a commercial interruption for political or any other reason.

The first round of Geneva talks was held in July 2008, and was inconclusive. Diplomats were clearly frustrated at the end of a long day in Geneva’s Hotel de Ville, or town hall, in the center of its old city. Today’s meeting is being held in the Villa Le Saugy, in the Geneva countryside, which the NYTimes called “an 18th-century villa well-protected from the press”.

Though the group of diplomats meeting Iran are usually called the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — US, UK, France, Russia and China — plus Germany), European diplomats at the first round of Geneva talks wore badges saying it was a meeting of 3 + 3 (three EU members plus three others — US, Russia and China). The EU’s High Representative for a Common Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana, also attended last year’s talks, and will be at the Geneva meeting today as well.

Until now, Germany has probably been the country in the group that is most supportive of Iran. In advance of today’s Geneva Talks Two (and after the very recent brouhaha about Iranian plans to build a second enrichment facility for some 20+ planned future nuclear energy plants), at least one German official has suggested that Iran is “failing to co-operate”.

Agence France Press reported that according to the Iranian News Agency, Iran’s President Ahmedinejad told journalists in Iran this week that: “One of the subjects on the agenda of this negotiation is how we can get fuel for our Tehran reactor … As I said in New York, we need 19.75 percent-enriched uranium. We said that, and we propose to buy it from anybody who is ready to sell it to us. We are ready to give 3.5 percent-enriched uranium and then they can enrich it more and deliver to us 19.75 percent-enriched uranium”.

But — what is this 19.75 percent enrichment that Ahmedinejad mentioned? Have any arms specialists analyzed this?

UPDATE: Juan Cole noted on his blog, Informed Comment, that “Iran agreed to send ‘most’ of its stock of low enriched uranium (3.5%) to Russia for processing to the roughly 20% degree of enrichment needed to run its small reactor producing medical isotopes. Iran has about 3200 pounds of low-enriched uranium, and is willing to send 2600 to Russia. That is a little over a ton, or about what a single Ford Focus weighs. Iran does not anyway have the ability to enrich to more than about 4.8% at the moment, and the medical reactor will be out of fuel in a little over a year, so if they continued to want the medical isotopes they would be forced to take this step anyway”. For full story, see strong>here.

So, a nuclear reactor producing medical isotopes needs uranium enriched to 19.74 percent???

Before Ahmedinejad’s statement in New York, where he addressed the UN General Assembly and held meetings on the sidelines with those who would meet with him, it was generally thought that Iran’s own enrichment program would only upgrade its uranium to the 5 percent level.

Iran’s refusal to stop its enrichment program has cost it three rounds of sanctions authorized by the UN Security Council.

The legality and political legitimacy of the demands on Iran to stop its enrichment program are (and have been) debated.

The bottom line of the “international community”, as expressed by the UN Security Council, is that Iran take steps to rebuild “confidence”. This involves, the Security Council has said, stopping the uranium enrichment program which Iran believes is legally justifiable. Iranian officials also deny that Iran has any intention of building a nuclear weapon, and only wants to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes — but there is a certain amount of international scepticism about these statements that has largely prevailed.

Israel’s YNet reported that “the details [of Ahmedinejad’s proposal] were not immediately clear”, and added that “In New York last week, Ahmadinejad said Iran would seek to enrich uranium to 20% itself if it could not find the product in the market for its research reactor in Tehran”. YNet noted that “Uranium enrichment is the sensitive process that lies at the centre of Western concerns over Iran’s real ambitions. The process can produce the fuel for nuclear power or, in highly extended form, the fissile core of an atomic bomb. Iran’s current program permits enrichment to reach 5% A full 90% would be required to produce a bomb”. YNet added that Iran’s “five megawatt plant was supplied by the United States before the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the US-backed shah. The reactor is under IAEA supervision.”

An intriguing development has been the issuance of a U.S. visa for Iran’s Foreign Minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, to visit Washington on the eve of the Geneva Two Talks.
A U.S. State Department spokesman cooly told journalists in Washington not to read too much into it — but it is a very unusual move.

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