By Kelsey Davenport and Greg Thielmann
This week, former Iranian nuclear envoy Hossein Mousavian presented a fresh take on the 20 percent uranium enrichment issue. With the next round of nuclear talks in danger of bogging down over Iran’s right to continue enriching uranium, Mousavian’s suggestion warrants a closer look as a potential interim compromise for the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany) and Tehran.
Speaking on June 4 at the Arms Control Association’s annual meeting, Mousavian put forth a proposal for the June 18-19 Moscow talks that focused on a “zero stockpile” approach for Iran’s uranium enriched to 20 percent. According to Mousavian, a joint committee, which would include P5+1 representation, would determine how much 20 percent uranium Iran would need in the future and that amount would be converted into uranium metal fuel plates. Iran has already converted nearly 50 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium into the metallic plates to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor, which produces medical isotopes. The remaining stockpile would be blended down to 3.5 percent enriched or shipped out of the country.
While this proposal falls far short of solving all of the outstanding international concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, it does have some attractive features as an interim step. For one, it could allay some Western concerns about a nuclear weapons breakout capability by transforming more of Iran’s current stockpile of 20 percent uranium (approximately 100 kilograms) to metallic fuel plates. In this metallic form, it presents less danger of being further enriched to a weapons grade level of 90 percent, a key international concern. Iranian agreement to such a proposal would also lend credence to Tehran’s assertion that it is enriching only for peaceful purposes. Additionally, it could act as a confidence building measure that keeps the negotiators meeting while the parties discuss the more contentious question of conditionality for the “inalienable right to enrichment.”
Progress in linking production of enriched uranium to specific peaceful purposes would be an important accomplishment of the talks. Such an approach could lead to a win-win situation for both parties on the 20 percent enrichment question. If the joint committee were to determine that, after conversion, Iran’s supply of fuel plates was adequate for its needs, Iran could temporarily halt production of 20 percent enriched uranium, a condition that the P5+1 is looking for, while preserving the right to enrich, an important Iranian bargaining position. Likewise, it could eventually prevent accumulation of 3.5% enriched stockpiles beyond the current needs in Iran’s civilian nuclear energy program.
Mousavian is not the only person who thinks that negotiators should emphasize converting more of the 20 percent stockpile to metallic fuel plates. In a June 5 article in Bloomberg Business Week, Jonathan Tirone quoted former UK envoy to the IAEA Peter Jenkins as saying that negotiators should focus on conversion as an alterative means of mitigating the break out threat, rather than asking Tehran to ship its 20 percent stockpile out in exchange for manufactured fuel rods.