Joshua PollackClosing the Books on TRR Diplomacy

Mark Heinrich of Reuters, George Jahn of AP, and Laura Rozen of Politico have gotten ahold of a letter to IAEA Director-General Amano from the ambassadors of France, Russia, and the United States regarding Iran’s announced decision to re-enrich LEU to the vicinity of 20%.

(The Reuters story is here, AP is here, and Politico here.)

The letter is of interest as a sort of statement for the record on the Vienna talks of last October, where the technicalities of a plan for refueling the Tehran Research Reactor were developed. We’ve never had a full accounting of the bargain tentatively struck there, which the Iranian side seems to have formally rejected only as of early January. This excerpt may be as close as it gets for a while:

We regret that Iran has not agreed to the IAEA’s 21 October proposal, which our three countries endorsed. We recognize Iran’s need for assurance that the project would be fully implemented.

We note that the IAEA’s proposal incorporates a number of provisions that provide assurances regarding our collective commitment to fulfill the IAEA’s proposal. The IAEA agreed to take formal custody of Iran’s nuclear material. We agreed to a legally binding Project and Supply Agreement. We agreed to support technical assistance through the IAEA to ensure the safe operations of the TRR. We expressed our willingness to have Iran’s low enriched uranium placed in escrow in a third country until completion of the fabrication process. The United States offered substantial political assurances that the agreement would be fulfilled.

(Here’s my previous educated guesswork about the Technical Cooperation aspect of the proposed deal, plus analysis of Iran’s fuel-swap demand and the escrow proposal mentioned above.)

The letter goes on to parse Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s public statements, which suggests that no one has assumed the go-between role formerly played by previous IAEA DG Mohamed ElBaradei. It concludes with a warning: the “escalation” of enrichment up to 20% — being both unnecessary and insufficient for the stated purpose of maintaining the continuity of Iran’s supply of medical isotopes — “would raise new concern about Iran’s nuclear intentions” and “further undermine the confidence of the international community in Iran’s actions.”

From the United States and France, this is nothing new, but coming from Russia, it’s a statement.


  1. archjr (History)

    Interesting, not remarkable, except where are the Brits, the Germans, the Chinese? Is this a nudge to Amano to continue ElBaradei’s role as a mediator? We need some scuttlebutt on this development…

  2. Lysander (History)

    Is it possible that the Oct 18 bombing of the IRGC convoy, resulting in the deaths of several senior officers, might have hardened Iran’s position?

    Also, there is no indication that they considered Iran’s offer of a simultaneous swap. Had they accepted that but Iran later reneged, they would have a stronger case. “Legally binding” agreements are only binding if there is an impartial power to enforce them. And there isn’t.

  3. Sascha LHX

    What do they mean by “… being both unnecessary and insufficient for the stated purpose …” ? can somebody elaborate please. thanks

  4. Josh (History)


    I think it’s these three countries because it relates to the Oct. 21 proposal put forward by the IAEA, which they endorsed. The UK, Chinese, and Germans were at the previous round of talks in Geneva, but not at these “technical” talks.


    “Being both unnecessary and insufficient for the stated purpose” is my paraphrase. Read the document itself for the actual text.

  5. Arnold Evans (History)

    What is a substantial political assurance?

    The United States has provided substantial political assurances that the agreement would be fulfilled.

    Seriously. What does that even mean? What could it possibly mean?

    My best guess, and I’m dumbfounded while guessing, is that Barack Obama himself privately gave his word that he’d try to make sure the West honored the agreement. I don’t know how to express how meaningless “substantial political assurances” must appear to Iran. Because worse than if they hadn’t been given, they are insulting. This really feels like a “trade gold for candy with children” situation.

    1) Bushehr has not been fulfilled, and the US is not more trustworthy than Russia.

    2) The only reason it makes sense that Iran’s uranium has to be removed from the country instead of sealed by the IAEA in Iran is if the US does not plan on delivering the fuel, or at least considers that an important contingency.

    3) The idea that the terms of the deal cannot be further negotiated detracts from the credibility of the West.

    Iran says its willing to do a swap, if a swap would actually happen, and Iran would actually get fuel. The deal is structured to at least give the US the option of withholding fuel unless Iran makes further concessions. Why must it be structured that way?

    At the end of October, the US could, and if it wanted a swap should, have ordered production of fuel plates to start. By now, three months later, enough fuel would be ready that Iran could have made the trade, secure that there is no funny business involved, in early February and Iran’s LEU would, by today, be gone.

    The unescapable conclusion is that what could be a simple swap deal is complicated by the US ambition (which might as well be openly stated) of using the fuel to pressure Iran into making further concessions on its nuclear program, and giving up any military nuclear capability.

  6. Andrew

    Lysander, it is unfortunate that there wasn’t more work on the escrow in a third country option or consideration of a greatly strengthened inspections regime with a multi-staged or simultaneous swap. Iran already has the LEU and is going to keep it if no exchange takes place, so what is so dangerous about a multi-staged or simultaneous swap? By refusing to do any swap with Iran, Iran may claim that it is must do the enrichment to save the lives of its cancer patients. It would seem the U.S. was simply seeking increased face and leverage for influence over Iran, but I am not really sure that yet another round of sanctions will make any difference whatsoever. If anything, it would seem we are handing Iran a ticket to further proceed with enrichment.

    What do we do about other states with national uranium enrichment (i.e. Japan, Egypt, Argentina, etc) if they become regimes we don’t like? Sanction and bomb them all? The policy seems backward with promoting its stated goals, and also does not seem slightly extensible to other situations.

  7. b (History)

    KWU gave substantial assurance that it would build a reactor in Iran.

    The French gave substantial assurance that Iran would get enriched Uranium after it paid $1 billion as it did.

    The U.S. gave substantial political assurance in the Algier Accord that it would not interfere in Iran.

    The Russians gave substantial assurance that they would deliver S-300s to Iran.

    The Russians also gave substantial assurance that Busher would start a few years ago.

    Iran would be crazy to accept any deal just on someones “substantial political assurance”.

    That’s we it proposed to do the swap under different condition.

    That the U.S. did not react to that but shot it down immediately was a certain sign that deal was never meant to be serious.

  8. J House (History)

    The current Iranian leadership made a strategic decision long ago to develop nuclear weapons, and they have not strayed from that path for over 2 decades.
    This is just a dance as they continue to lower the bar to increase enrichment levels.
    There are few pressure points that will prevent them from achieving their strategic objectives.
    By the end of this president’s term,we will have a 2nd (undeclared) nuclear player in the ME.

  9. John (History)

    Sorry to ask what is to most obvious, but IF Iran were merely pursuing replacement medical isotopes, to what level would it have to enrich the LEU it has? Or what process would this entail?

  10. bts (History)

    US wants Iran to shut down TRR:

    U.S. unveils offer to help Iran purchase medical isotopes

    So why the international community would give Iran a big pile 20% enriched uranium if Iran doesn’t need it at all? They could just ask Iran to negotiate purchase of medical isotopes.

  11. anon

    There’s nothing as amateurish as a site full of armatures posting about that which they so amateurishly understand.

  12. George William Herbert (History)

    John asks:
    Sorry to ask what is to most obvious, but IF Iran were merely pursuing replacement medical isotopes, to what level would it have to enrich the LEU it has? Or what process would this entail?

    The TRR reactor was originally designed for HEU fuel – and subsequently redesigned for 20% enrichment fuel, actually slightly under 20% as 20% plus is the highly enrichmed threshold everyone tries to avoid now.

    One would have to look at the detailed reactor design and operations to determine if it would run with lower enrichment at lower power levels – there’s some margin there, but whether it would be ok at 19% and lousy at 17% and not work at all at 15%, or be ok at 15% but not 14%, I don’t know. 20% minus a bit is what it’s designed for.

  13. Josh (History)

    To answer John’s question, Iran would need to conduct further enrichment of some of its uranium (currently in UF6 form), subject the resulting enriched uranium product to a chemical conversion process, and then fabricate the resulting material (uranium oxide, I think, but don’t quote me on that) into a special type of fuel plates that compose the fuel assemblies for TRR.

    Iran has never done reconversion of UF6 that I’m aware of, and has no known experience making the fuel plates, either. There’s basically no chance that new, locally produced fuel will be ready when the reactor shuts down later this year. So if the Iranians need more medical isotopes after that point, they’ll be buying from abroad, as most countries do.

    Now that everyone has patted their pet rocks on this question, and even been circularly insulted by the circular insults of the misspellling anonymous (little joke there), I think we can move on. Shall we?

  14. Andrew


    The Administration really hasn’t done a thorough job of explaining exactly why Iran retaining some LEU and more medical isotopoes is more dangerous than Iran retaining more LEU and less medical isotopes, or why a greatly strengthened inspections regime with a multi-staged or simultaneous swap via an escrow is dangerous enough to be off the table without any form of discussion whatsoever.

    The Administration and a number of media sources also initially posited that Iran couldn’t immediately enrich to 20% at any level, yet the IAEA has already confirmed that Iran has indeed enriched a minute amount to 19.75%. Some sources have also suggested that if Iran has the technical knowledge to develop ballistic missiles that it may also not be that difficult for it to pick up the process of making fuel plates.

    In my opinion, the US should have either made a very firm commitment to the swap option or it should have initially suggested third-party countries sell the medical isotopes to Iran as Iran previously recieved them.

  15. jeannick (History)


    Iran has no experience of working with U metal
    That’s exactly the type of hands on techno needed to shape warhead ,
    It strike me that stopping Iran to get this kind of practice should have been an overriding concern for the U.S.
    even up to providing the plates on a simple request
    Obama has profered an open hand to Iran at the start of his administration but that was empty words ,
    getting the TRR fueled with dispatch would have
    demonstrated a good working attitude
    removed a beautiful excuse for Iran to enrich and work on its smelting process

    Josh responds: Unfortunately, Iran has not needed an excuse to start work on reconversion to metal, announcing its intentions to do so for unspecified R&D purposes. And the Argentine-supplied fuel plates of TRR are, I understand, made of U3O8.