Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Nuclear Rope-a-Dope

29 DEC 05, 12:38 CST

Iran has formally agreed to hold talks on a Russian proposal to enrich Iranian uranium at a facility inside Russia. A senior Iranian official told Reuters on Wednesday that his country would "seriously and enthusiastically" study Moscow's plan, which calls for creation of a joint venture to that would process uranium from Iran at a Russian enrichment facility. The U.S. and the European Union support the proposal, which is aimed at ending the standoff over Iran's nuclear program.

Don't get your hopes up. The concerns outlined in the post below are still valid. Iran has already stated that it sees potential problems with the Russian plan, which may ultimately be used to veto the proposal--after dragging out talks for a period of many months. The old "nuclear rope-a-dope" strategy is alive and well in Tehran.


Iran is said to be "studying" a Russian proposal that calls for moving its uranium enrichment efforts to a facility in Russia. The proposal--which has the backing of the U.S. and the European Union--is viewed as a potential means for reigning in Tehran's nuclear program. If the plan is accepted by Iran, enrichment activities now conducted at Iranian nuclear sites would be transferred to similar facilities in Russia, allowing greater monitoring--and control--of a critical step in the nuclear weapons development process.

There are a couple of problems with this approach. First, Iran seems to be adopting negotiating tactics perfected by the North Koreans. Let the west float a proposal, express some interest in the idea, stretch out negotiations for as long as possible, then reject the plan and start over again. Remember those recent negotiations between Iran and the so-called EU-3 (Britain, France, and Germany)? Those talks dragged on for almost a year until they reached a dead end, and forced diplomats to shift their focus to the Russian proposal.

If history is any indication, the Iranians will "study" the plan for a few months, then ultimately reject it, demanding complete control over all aspects of their nuclear program. At that point, the diplomats will trash about for something else, perhaps a resumption of the EU-3 talks. In the interim, Iran's nuclear program will continue to advance.

Another cautionary note: as we've noted before, Iran's periodic willingness to "discuss" its program may indicate that Iran has successfully concealed key elements of its program. If Tehran publicly agrees to move its enrichment efforts to Russia, there is a very good chance that the Iranians will retain a covert enrichment capability, circumventing any possible agreement, and allowing weapons development to continue.

Finally, the Russian plan ignores another key element of Iran's nuclear weapons program. Along with its enrichment efforts, Iran is also pursuing the development of heavy water facilities at Khondab (250 km SW of Tehran). A heavy water plant is already in operation at that location, and work is continuing on an adjacent heavy water reactor. When completed, the reactor could produce weapons-grade plutonium, extracted from fuel rods used in the reactor. The heavy water option could allow Tehran to essentially by-pass the enrichment process, and still develop nuclear weapons. Officially, Iran claims the reactor will be used to produce isotopes for industrial and medical use--a scenario that is highly unlikely, at best.

Despite on-going talks with Russia, it's highly unlikely that Iran will ever give up its enrichment efforts, or any other component of its nuclear program. Negotiations with the Russians and EU are little more than a nuclear rope-a-dope, allowing the west to expend its time and energy on efforts that are ultimately useless. And sadly, no one seems to have any better ideas for dealing with Iran's nuclear program (with the possible exception of the Israeli Air Force).

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