By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 11, 2009; A14
Iran four months ago discreetly contacted the United Nations-affiliated agency for nuclear energy to outline a worrisome situation: A research reactor in Tehran that produces medical isotopes that detect and treat the diseases of about 10,000 patients a week will run out of fuel by the end of 2010. Iran also had a request: Can you help us find a country that will sell us new fuel?
On the face of it, Iran's query was a plaintive plea from a country under deep suspicion over its nuclear ambitions. But it also carried an unstated threat: If no country was willing to sell a stash of medium-enriched uranium to Iran, Tehran could say it had no choice but to produce the nuclear fuel itself -- in effect putting it one step closer to obtaining weapons-grade fuel.
The research reactor uses uranium enriched to 19.75 percent -- a huge boost from the 3.5 percent enriched uranium created by Iran.
Now the Iranian request is at the center of an unusual deal, brokered largely by the United States, that aims to buy time for a diplomatic solution to the impasse over Iran's nuclear ambitions. If it works, Iran will end up with fuel necessary to treat desperately ill patients -- and greatly reduce its stock of low-enriched uranium. But critics question why the United States would be assisting a nuclear pariah -- and giving it fuel that is even more enriched than its current holdings -- without even an agreement that Iran stop operating a uranium enrichment facility in violation of numerous U.N. Security Council resolutions.
"You aren't buying much more time," said Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington. "You are bailing water out of a sinking ship rather than plugging a hole."
Obama administration officials counter that the deal should be viewed as both a confidence-building measure and a test of Iranian intentions. They say that if Iran fails to follow through with the agreement -- tentatively reached when Iranian diplomats met with major powers in Geneva on Oct. 1 -- then it will have demonstrated that it has little interest in working with other nations for even the most benign humanitarian purposes. Further details of the arrangement, including a timetable, are to be worked out in a meeting in Vienna on Oct. 19.
"This is a real confidence-building measure," said a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities. "If they say they need it for medical purposes, we are offering it to them. If they accept it, it is LEU [low-enriched uranium] coming out. If they reject it, it is another data point that says, 'Look, these guys are not serious.' "
The reactor was built for Iran by the United States more than 40 years ago and initially supplied with weapons-grade uranium (enriched to 93 percent). But after the Iranian revolution in 1979, the United States refused to provide any more fuel; Iran insists that the United States still owes millions of dollars for fuel that was not delivered. In 1987, with the assistance of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran reached an agreement with Argentina to convert the reactor core to use nearly 20 percent enriched uranium; in 1993, about 50 pounds of the fuel was shipped from Argentina to Iran.
Now the Argentine-supplied fuel is running low. An Iranian news report in 2007 said the reactor produces a number of isotopes used in X-rays and the treatment of thyroid disorders.
When U.S. officials learned of Iran's interest in new fuel, they realized the potential threat. At an enrichment facility in Natanz, Iran has accumulated a stockpile of 3,300 pounds of low-enriched uranium, enough for a single nuclear weapon if it were enriched to weapons-grade levels. Every day the stockpile grows by 4 1/2 pounds, so U.S. officials thought it would be a disaster if Iran found an excuse to enrich the uranium even further.
So the Obama administration conceived of a plan under which Iran would supply its own stock of uranium to another country -- Russia -- in order to fuel the research reactor. Iran essentially would have to give up about 80 percent of its stockpile to get back the same amount of uranium supplied by Argentina in 1993 -- and at current production rates, it could take Iran as long as two years to replace that material.
During President Obama's trip to Moscow in July, White House official Gary Samore broached the idea to Sergei Kiriyenko, head of Russia's atomic energy agency, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov. A senior U.S. official said, "Both of them immediately said this is a great idea. The Russians don't need to be told what's obviously in their own interest. Anything that sets the Iranian nuclear clock back is in Russia's interest."
But Russia wanted another country to take the enriched fuel and fashion it into metal plates made up of a uranium-aluminum alloy that could be used in the reactor. So France was enlisted for that job.
The IAEA and its director, Mohamed ElBaradei, were intimately involved in the plan and kept in touch with the Iranians. Obama discussed it with ElBaradei before the critical Oct. 1 meeting in Geneva.
The plan was developed in secret, so U.S. officials were surprised when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad raised the problem of the research reactor during an interview with The Washington Post and Newsweek on Sept. 23 -- and said he was interested in buying the fuel directly from the United States.
U.S. officials puzzled over his statement, because a direct purchase from the United States was politically impossible. They were relieved when, on the eve of the Geneva talks, he was quoted as saying that Iran would ship its low-enriched uranium to a third country for processing.
Critics such as Sokolski say it will be too easy for Iran to extract the more highly enriched uranium for weapons. He noted that Argentina published the process online. U.S. officials counter that Iran has no known technical expertise at extracting uranium from a metal alloy.
Still, at this point, U.S. officials refuse to say which person in the government dreamed up the plan. "I think we want to see if it succeeds before we designate paternity here," said another senior official.