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Iran and nuclear intentions: Plan to export uranium to Russia

Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, front, arrives for a meeting of delegates from Iran, the U.S. Russia and France, on Monday, Oct. 19, 2009, at Vienna's International Center. The talks between the nations focus on a technical issue with huge strategic ramifications, whether Iran is ready to farm out some of its uranium enrichment program to a foreign country. Others are not identified. (AP Photo/Hans Punz)
Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, front, arrives for a meeting of delegates from Iran, the U.S. Russia and France, on Monday, Oct. 19, 2009, at Vienna's International Center. The talks between the nations focus on a technical issue with huge strategic ramifications, whether Iran is ready to farm out some of its uranium enrichment program to a foreign country. Others are not identified. (AP Photo/Hans Punz) (Hans Punz - AP)

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Greg Thielmann
Senior Fellow, Arms Control Association
Wednesday, October 21, 2009; 3:00 PM

Greg Thielmann, senior fellow at the Arms Control Association, a nonpartisan membership organization founded in 1971 which promotes public understanding of and support for effective arms control policies, was online Wednesday, Oct. 21, at 3 p.m. ET to discuss the negotiations underway in Vienna between Iran negotiators and the U.S., Russia and France for a deal that -- if accepted by their leaders -- would delay Tehran's ability to make nuclear weapons by sending most of its existing enriched uranium to Russia for processing.

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Five Myths About Iran's Nuclear Program

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Greg Thielman: Hi, this is Greg Thielmann from the Arms Control Association. The chat is occurring at a fortuitous time. We learned today that the U.S., Russian, and French delegations in Vienna have accepted an IAEA proposal for implementing the October 1 agreement in principle between Iran and the six powers to further enrich and fabricate Iranian low-enriched uranium outside the country for subsequent use in the Tehran Research Reactor for medical isotope production. While this agreement must still be accepted in capitals, it seems like this confidence-building measure is moving forward.

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Boston, Mass.: How much low enriched uranium does Iran currently possess and how do we verify that amount (and future amounts)? Separately, are we doing the Iranians a favor by enriching their LEU to a much higher level (quicker than they could) or is there no technical way to use the uranium processed for medical purposes under the deal for further enrichment into weapons grade material?

Greg Thielman: The last figure we have from the IAEA was 1,508 kg of lEU at the end of August. The IAEA has reliable ways to verify how much has been produced and keeps the existing stockpiles under seal. We are doing the Iranians a favor to the extent that they want to keep their research reactor operating and producing medical isotopes. The removal of 80% of their existing stocks from the country for some period of time, would, however make it unavailable for illicit (non-peaceful) use. My understanding is that the fuel assemblies that would be returned to Iran in metallic form would not be practical for reconverting into gas for HEU production.

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Tampa, Fla.: Do you see any chance of Iran being surprisingly accommodating in negotiations, and then suddenly playing the Israel card? By this I mean late in the game, after making apparent concessions, demanding that Israel sign the NPT and agree to the same extent and degree of inspections of all its nuclear facilities as does Iran.

Greg Thielman: The more accommodating Iran is in negotiations, the more it will have to accept transparency in its nuclear program, making it difficult to divert its capabilities to weapons purposes. If accommodation becomes the norm there may be possibilities for constructing additional impediements to non-peaceful use. This does not, of course, rule out that it would call for Israel to take similar steps, but it seems unlikely that Tehran would jeopardize other political and economic gains to demand an Israeli action that would be unlikely to be realized.

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Washington, D.C.: I realize the President seems to trust Russia to an absurd degree taking down the missile shield, but enriched uranium to Russia? Didn't we spend billions under Clinton to get such material out of there? The French have a point, out at a minimum.

Greg Thielman: Past U.S. administrations (Republican and Democratic) have spent considerable money removing highly enriched uranium from unsecured facilities, including within the former Soviet Union -- very important work for achieving U.S. nonproliferation objectives. I think that the U.S. can trust Russia to act in Russia's interests. Fulfilling the terms of this deal with Iran would serve our mutual interests.

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Thielmann,

Has there been much buzz about the Ignatius column linked to below? One implication of it is that we may have much more time on Iran than we once thought. The other, more worrisome implication is that this deal to have Iran ship their nuclear fuel out of country for enrichment will actually allow them to decontaminate it, and then go forward with enrichment after they get the processed fuel back- this deal would essentially jump the contamination hurdle for them and allow them to proceed with a bomb. Your opinion?

A Hitch in Iran's Nuclear Plans? (Post, Oct. 16)

Greg Thielman: I am not qualified to give you an authoritative answer on the nucleonics of this issue. I understand from those who are qualified that Ignatius may be overestimating whatever contamination problems the Iranians are dealing with -- that is, we have no evidence of this currently being a "show-stopper." In any case, the form of the returned fuel would not be readily adaptable for HEU production.

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Boston, Mass.: According to Kessler: "A key question is how quickly the material will leave Iran. If all of the uranium leaves in one shipment by the end of the year, most experts say, it would take Iran at least a year to replace it. But if it left in batches, then Iran could replace the material as it was shipped out."

The agreement seems to be a band-aid and doesn't address the general concern of Iran's enrichment capability but a more acute concern of an immediate bomb supply. If that is the case, what is the "end-game?"

Greg Thielman: The Oct. 1 agreement is certainly not an end game. It is rather a confidence building measure on the way toward an end game. But I see it as much more than a "band-aid." Moving the "worst-case" timeline outward by many months would provide valuable time to pursue other solutions without a net increase in Iran's stockpile of LEU, which could be available for further enrichment to weapons-grade if it decided to break out of the IAEA safeguards regime. While removing the material in a single shipment would be superior to removing it in batches as a confidence builder, either one would be advantageous for the U.S. and the IAEA.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Who would be monitoring this transfer?

Greg Thielman: I assume that the IAEA would be involved in every step of the transfer.

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Fairfax, Va.: You mentioned in your introduction that negotiation was between Iran and the U.S., Russia and France but then you mentioned "the six powers." Who are the other countries involved?

Greg Thielman: The six powers are: the U.S., France, Russia, Britain, China, and Germany. Only the first three are directly involved with Iran in the LEU enrichment/fabrication proposal and were parties to the Vienna negotiations facilitated by the IAEA.

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Alexandria, Va.: How likely is it that other nations that currently have ratified the Nonproliferation Treaty will withdraw from it (as North Korea did) and start, or resume, nuclear testing? China, for instance (given the emergence of India and Pakistan as nuclear states).

Greg Thielman: Fortunately, North Korea is an unusual case as the only country which has ratified and then withdrawn from the NPT. India and Pakistan never signed. Unlike North Korea, Iran has expressed no intention to withdraw and publicly argues that there is no legitimate (or moral) role for nuclear weapons. There are other countries, however, which could be negatively influenced if non-NPT states were perceived to have benefited poltically or economically from chosing to pursue nuclear weapons. U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, which we have already signed would help in constructing barriers to those counties considering leaving the NPT.

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Princeton, N.J.: Please explain the evidence that Iran wants to and is proceeding to build atomic weapons.

Greg Thielmann: It is important to acknowledge that evidence of Iran's current nuclear intent is circumstantial. According to a 2007 estimate from the U.S. intelligence community, Iran had a program to develop nuclear weapons for many years but halted it in the fall of 2003. Iran has also had a practice of not disclosing activities to the IAEA under its allegedly peaceful nuclear energy program, which naturally raises suspicions that it intends to use "dual-use" capabilities for developing nuclear weapons. In the latest case, Western intelligence services exposed a tunnel facility near Qom, which Iran only recently informed the IAEA was for civilian enrichment of uranium. Tehran provided the information long after it was obligated to inform the IAEA under its safeguards agreement with the agency. It is to increase confidence that Iranian activities are for peaceful purposes that the U.S. and the U.N. are trying to increase access to Iranian facilities and plans.

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Greg Thielmann: Thank you for participating. Stay tuned for news expected on Friday of whether the arrangements reached today concerning LEU enrichment outside Iran are accepted in capitals.

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