Joshua PollackTRR Tradeoffs

The immediate advantages of last week’s agreement-in-principle between Iran and the P5+1 / E3+3 are pretty clear. Iran gets about five years’ worth of fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). And removing 1,200 kg of Iran’s LEU and returning it as fuel takes away the much-discussed breakout option for the near term, as James was quick to note (see: Geneva: The TRR and Enrichment Abroad, October 1, 2009).

Nor does it seem that James’s concerns about possible molybdenum contamination in the LEU will prove an insurmountable obstacle. Mark Hibbs writes in the latest (October 5, 2009) issue of NuclearFuel that there are easy work-arounds:

Russia would have three options to supply fresh fuel for the TRR, P-5+1 officials said: enriching the Iranian EUP [enriched uranium product] to 19.75%; enriching Russian feedstock to that level; or blending down Russian high-enriched uranium, HEU, to 19.75%. The last two options could involve flag swaps of Iranian and Russian material, they said.

Whether the Iranians would agree to one of these alternatives remains to be seen; this issue might be cleared up at the next meeting, on October 18 19.


From the Iranian perspective, the risk of finalizing and implementing the LEU deal is that the agreement might break down halfway through, stranding their EUP in Russia or France. So Geoff reminds us (see: A Primer on Iran’s Medical Reactor Plans, October 4, 2009).

From the P5+1 perspective, the main problem is that the arrangement does not satisfy the Security Council’s demand in UNSCR 1696 of 2006 — reaffirmed repeatedly, including just last month! — that Iran “suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities.”

From the Iranian point of view, of course, this is an added advantage, as Saeed Jalili made clear:

“There was no discussion about the suspension of (Iran’s) nuclear activities,” Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) told reporter after he returned home from Geneva talks on Friday night.

The agreement also appears to require modification of UNSCR 1747 1737, which forbids Iranian nuclear exports. It does not seem to require any changes to the parts of UNSCR 1737 barring imports, since the “Bushehr loophole” would seem to cover TRR already: transfers of equipment and LEU fuel for LWRs are allowed. 19.75% enriched fuel just barely qualifies.

Worth It?

Is the advantage of getting most of Iran’s LEU stockpile out of the way worth the risk of not addressing the core issues at the outset? P5+1 officials can argue that they aren’t retreating from the suspension demand; after all, virtually all the sanctions that have followed from it will remain in place. Hibbs reports that the conditions that the P5+1 are likely to demand at this time “might include spent fuel takeback or in perpetuity safeguards.” (That last point would mean facility-specific safeguards that would remain in place even after an NPT withdrawal, on which see: Parallel Fuel Cycles, Revisited, September 30, 2009.) Those are pretty narrow conditions, more or less in keeping with the view of the senior U.S. official who called the LEU deal, in effect, just a first step on a long road:

So again, at least in our view, the research reactor proposal made by the IAEA would be a positive interim step to help build confidence so that we’d have more diplomatic space to pursue Iran’s compliance with its obligations under the Security Council Resolutions, the NPT and the IAEA, and to tackle the more fundamental question of Iran’s nuclear program.

We’re a long way from CVID, Toto.

Iran as North Korea

The idea of a stepwise approach raises the question of what makes for a mutually acceptable end state. The supply of fuel through Russia and France calls to mind North Korea’s demand for a LWR as a confidence-building measure under the ill-fated US-DPRK Agreed Framework of 1994 and the ill-fated Six-Party Talks. Indeed, one possibility would be to resurrect that general approach — under some other label, of course — by setting forth a larger program with multiple phases, in which the nuclear fuel cycle is gradually traded away for various political and security desiderata. But as we have seen, such arrangements are easily derailed by the profound lack of trust between the parties. Nor is there necessarily a solution space for this sort of deal to start with.

One could also envision a less ambitious program, a sort of halfway house that would help to achieve crucial regional security goals without quite ushering in the “grand bargain” of diplomatic dreams. Under this scenario, Iran would not suspend the operation of the nuclear fuel cycle, and sanctions would remain in place, but tensions would be reduced considerably by strengthened safeguards.

To extend the North Korea metaphor a little further, Iran today presents the West with a classic Kumchangri problem: there are some holes in the ground Over There, but how do you get inspectors in? According to the NY Times, intelligence agencies had spotted “more than a dozen suspect locations” as of a couple years ago, but didn’t necessarily have enough insight into their nature to be prepared to feed that information to the IAEA. (The Qom site was apparently on that list.) According to the same account, the P5+1 plans to demand that Iran adhere to the Additional Protocol, which would reduce a Kumchangri-type dilemma to a matter of routine (see: Be Careful What You Wish For, October 20, 2008). This could be a reasonable way for both sides to keep the pot from boiling over.

If you can’t quite envision that happening either, then perhaps it’s time to consider the multinational option (see: Paradox: Now is the Time to Deal, September 25, 2009).

Let’s conclude (finally) with a cautionary note. Last week brought two big surprises: first, the Qom revelation; second, the news that the LEU-for-TRR deal had been quietly under discussion for a few months prior to the Geneva talks. There may yet be other surprises pending.


  1. Mehdi

    I wonder why any of the US intelligence spotted holes aren’t any close to the Fordu Village which Iran says is home to the second enrichment plant?

  2. jonjon

    “The agreement also appears to require modification of UNSCR 1747, which forbids Iranian nuclear exports.”
    It seems to me that the resolution only forbids Iranian exports of arms and related materials- not nuclear materials. If so, the deal will not require any modification of UNSCR 1747. anyone?

  3. Josh (History)

    Grr. I keep mixing up my resolutions. Yes, UNSCR 1747 would be unaffected. UNSCR 1737 contains both the nuclear import and nuclear export provisions. The export provision would be affected.

    Sorry about that.

  4. J House (History)

    What are the odds that a third enrichment plant (or more) exist, given the fact the Iran disclosed another secret facility only in the past few weeks, unknown to the IAEA. Before disclosure by the Iranians, this facility was only speculation by the USIC.

  5. hass (History)

    You assume that the US side is negotiating in good faith. HIstory has shown (specifically, the Paris Agreement negotiations and 2 year suspension of enrichment) that Iran has been more than flexible, but has been shafted each time it offered such concessions.

    “I am telling you the Americans can come and have 50-50 [of an Iranian nuclear programme]. This offer is on the table. But they have their suspicions . . . this could be removed by their presence [in Iran’s programme],” he said. – (Iran offers US share in nuclear programme
    By Kevin Morrison in Isfahan, Financial Times, March 16 2005)

  6. mark hibbs

    Conditions of supply of TRR fuel:

    See what CEIP put out (Pierre Goldschmidt and George Perkovich) on the issue of safeguards and takeback of TRR fuel. There is an Infcirc-66 safeguards agreement for the TRR (Infcirc-127) that was modified and then superseded by a -153 agreement (Infcirc-214). Infcirc-127 isn’t quite in-perpetuity safeguards but it’s close.

  7. Josh (History)

    Mark, thanks for the pointer. Here’s where to find the Goldschmidt-Perkovich paper.