The dust is settling in the wake of the Geneva meeting, and it seems to have been a lot more productive than expected. Mohamed ElBaradei will be in Tehran on Saturday to nail down an inspection date for the newly-revealed Qom enrichment plant. There will also be another meeting of the E3+3 group with Iran before the end of October to continue negotiations on Iran’s uranium enrichment programme.
Most importantly, however, there is an “agreement in principle” that Iran will send out a significant chunk of its low enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia for further enriching and then to France, to be processed into fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), for making medical isotopes.
If all this happens – and there will be a meeting on the details between Iran, France and Russia at IAEA headquarters in Vienna on October 18 – then a lot of the uranium the world is currently worrying about would be temporarily taken out of the equation. Western officials here say that to restock the TRR, Iran would have to send out up to 1200 kg of LEU. That’s about three-quarters of what they’ve got, and it would be out of the country for a year. When it came back it would be in the form of fuel rods, so it could not be turned into weapons grade material in a quick breakout scenario.
The deal was apparently hatched by the Americans and Russians over the past month, and it could be a masterful means of lowering tensions. It would not infringe what Iran argues is its sovereign right to a fully-fledged nuclear programme, so face would be saved. But it takes off the table, for the time being, the main source of immediate anxiety – the uranium stockpile.
Of course anxiety is only relieved to the degree that you believe that there are no other Qoms hidden up Iranian sleeves. That is a question of confidence to be addressed by a new deal with the IAEA. And Iran would continue to enrich, even under freeze-for-freeze. But time will have been bought.
Of course, the deal could easily unravel on October 18, when the talk turns to details, but it does represent a cheap way for Tehran to achieve what it says it wants to achieve – civilian applications of nuclear technology.