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Parsing the White House Statement on the Iran Nuclear Fuel Swap Deal
Submitted by Robert Naiman on 18 May 2010 - 8:32am
Perhaps I still have a bit too much of that "hopey-changey" Kool-Aid in my system, but I read the White House statement in response to the Iran-Turkey-Brazil announcement as saying to Iran: "We acknowledge that you moved. We're still ready to deal, and we'll see you in Geneva."
The White House statement is here:
I think it's fair to assume that a good deal of thought went into crafting this statement. Robert Gibbs did not come up with these words on his own. The folks in the Obama Administration who run nuclear diplomacy chose these words.
So what words did they choose, and what should we infer from them?
1. "We acknowledge the efforts that have been made by Turkey and Brazil."
This is positive. Regardless of what the Obama Administration said before the President of Brazil went to Iran, what the Obama Administration is saying now is: "Mazl Tov! Parabens! Tebrikler!" This is good. If you want a deal, the role of Brazil and Turkey is positive, not negative. Clearly, the involvement of Brazil and Turkey is raising the comfort level of the Iranians with the fuel swap deal. That's a good thing that should be encouraged. If you want a deal, you want the other side to be comfortable with the deal. Plus, now Brazil and Turkey have skin in the game. If Iran reneges, it's going to make Brazil and Turkey look bad. That's good. We are now in a situation where it's not "P5+1" on one side of the table and Iran on the other, but P5+1 on one side of the table and Iran +2 on the other. If your goal is to isolate Iran, that's bad. But if your goal it's to get a deal, that's good. The more signatures there are on the paper, the stronger the deal is.
2. "The proposal announced in Tehran must now be conveyed clearly and authoritatively to the IAEA before it can be considered by the international community."
This is perfectly reasonable, and in fact welcoming. "The proposal must be sent to Geneva before it can be considered" means "when you send this proposal to Geneva, I am going to consider it." Iran has said it will formally submit this proposal in a week.
3. "Given Iran’s repeated failure to live up to its own commitments, and the need to address fundamental issues related to Iran’s nuclear program, the United States and international community continue to have serious concerns."
The issue isn't resolved yet. No news there.
4. "While it would be a positive step for Iran to transfer low-enriched uranium off of its soil as it agreed to do last October, Iran said today that it would continue its 20% enrichment, which is a direct violation of UN Security Council resolutions and which the Iranian government originally justified by pointing to the need for fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor."
This is the most interesting sentence to me in the White House statement.
First, it re-affirms that the transfer of LEU out of Iran is positive. It makes no reference to the purported issue that due to subsequent enrichment, the absolute amount of LEU represented by the October deal has fallen as a percentage of Iran's LEU stockpile. Instead, it focuses on the 20% enrichment, "which is a direct violation of UN Security Council resolutions and which the Iranian government originally justified by pointing to the need for fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor."
This is a very interesting choice of words, because while it is of course absolutely true that Iran's 20% enrichment "is a direct violation of UN Security Council resolutions," as everyone knows, *any Iranian enrichment of uranium whatsoever* is just as much of "a direct violation of UN Security Council resolutions" as 20% enrichment. So, while pounding the table about "Iranian enrichment," the Obama Administration is making a deliberate choice to only pound the table about 20% enrichment, which is a billion times more reasonable than pounding the table about enrichment per se.
After all, regardless of what one thinks about the intrinsic signifance of 20% enrichment - this enrichment is under IAEA inspection, after all - as a political matter, 1) Iran was not doing 20% enrichment at the time of the October negotiation, 2) the Administration correctly notes that Iran said it was doing 20% enrichment to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor, and so, the Administration's statement implies, *in terms of Iran's needs, if there is a fuel swap deal, Iran should be willing to _suspend 20% enrichment_*, and in any event 3) Iran's decision to go to 20% enrichment was universally interpreted as an Iranian pressure tactic to push the West on negotiations around the fuel deal (Iran is not believed to have the technology to use the 20% enriched uranium as fuel in its medical research reactor), so again, if that was the goal of the Iranian move, then Iran should be willing to back off of 20% enrichment as part of a deal on the fuel swap.
5. "Furthermore, the Joint Declaration issued in Tehran is vague about Iran’s willingness to meet with the P5+1 countries to address international concerns about its nuclear program, as it also agreed to do last October."
In sum, I read the Administration statement as saying: we'll see you in Geneva, and when we see you in Geneva, we're going to ask you about two things: 20% enrichment, and the ongoing dialogue with the P5+1 about your nuclear program. And if we get satisfaction on these points, we can have a deal.
Of course, it will be pointed out to us that all of this is "only" about an *interim* deal, to tide us over, to slow down the clock, to deescalate tensions and build confidence for the main negotiation. So? The beauty and significance of the fuel swap deal *which was proposed by the United States* was that the US was making clear to Iran that the US was willing to talk about *other means by which Iran could establish international confidence in its nuclear intentions* besides the non-starter demand of suspension of enrichment. If this is still the US position, then there is a plausible path to a meaningful negotiation.