03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Rescuing Nuclear Talks with Iran

While all eyes focus on Afghanistan, the
situation with Iran is spiraling out of control. 

Iran failed
to accept
a tentative deal signed in Vienna last month to send most
of its current stockpile of low-enriched uranium abroad – and Secretary of State Clinton announced that the deal could not be changed.    

Then Iran refused to stop work on its
newly-declared enrichment facility near Qom.  The West responded last week by pushing through an IAEA
Board Resolution reprimanding Iran for that refusal.  An infuriated Iran retaliated by
announcing last Sunday that not only will it continue work at Qom, Iran plans
to build ten new enrichment

Last May, President Obama said he would assess
“by the end of the year” whether talks are moving in the right direction.  Right now, they clearly are moving in
the wrong direction, yet the New Year
will dawn with no good options for the West.  Sanctions will fail, war will make things far worse, and
choosing between sanctions and war is a lose-lose proposition.   

A couple weeks ago, I blogged on the
promising efforts
of outgoing IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei to
find a long-term solution to the nuclear stand-off
between Iran and the West.  Unfortunately,
hopes for a long-term settlement are receding in a fog of passions aroused by
conflict over two short-term issues that ought to be solvable. A foreign policy fiasco is shaping up that doesn't need to happen. 

How to get negotiations back on
track?  Let’s begin by taking another
look at the moribund stockpile deal that was supposed to build confidence and ended up undermining it.   

The original
plan worked out in Vienna
on October 22 was an ingenious
improvisation playing off a serendipitous development: the Tehran Research
Reactor, which manufactures medical isotopes, happens to be running low on fuel.  The Vienna plan calls for Iran to ship most
of its known stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia for further
enrichment and then to France for processing into fuel rods to re-supply the
Tehran Reactor.  This seemingly
win-win arrangement would meet Iran’s medical reactor needs while physically
removing from Iran a stockpile of raw LEU that has greatly worried the West.

Both sides welcomed the accord initially.  Then criticisms emerged.  The objections in Iran, ironically,
came not from Iran’s firebrand President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (he praised the
deal as a “victory” for Iran) but from his conservative rivals joined by the
titular leaders of the Green Movement in Iran.  

Their objections are two-fold.  First, critics point out that the deal as
written requires Iran to give up a major bargaining chip (most of its hard-won stockpile
of LEU) without getting anything of strategic value in exchange (such as
recognition of Iran’s right to enrich).

Second, Ahmadinejad’s rivals in Iran have heaped
scorn on the idea that Iran’s hard-won LEU is being entrusted to France.  France may be the only willing country with
the technology to manufacture the fuel rods for the French-made Tehran reactor.  But France’s President Sarkozy can
barely bring himself to say the word “Iran” except as part of a call for
tougher sanctions.  And France is
remembered in Iran as the country that two decades ago expropriated a
billion-dollar Iranian investment in a multinational enrichment consortium

Given these troubling facts, it is actually not surprising that the Vienna deal
would come in for close scrutiny in Tehran.

What to do?  The key thing to remember now is that the crux
of the nuclear dispute with Iran is not
the disposition of 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium that may or may not
be shipped abroad, but will soon be replaced in any case.  The main issue is the long-term future
of enrichment in Iran.  Even if the
stockpile deal were to be shelved completely while long-term talks are ongoing,
Iran is highly unlikely to “break out” from Natanz in the next few months, with
barely enough fuel for a single bomb, in the middle of talks aimed at a permanent
accommodation with the West.  Certainly
the risks of that scenario are far smaller than the risks flowing from the
alternative outcome of no talks, sanctions and war. 

Moreover, the stockpile deal may yet be salvageable.
 Iran has said it accepts the deal
in principle but wants greater guarantees of supply.  Towards this end, Iran has informally broached the idea of a simultaneous swap on
Iranian soil of raw LEU for
fabricated fuel rods.  Nuclear non-proliferation experts Jim Walsh at
MIT and Harold Feiveson at Princeton believe this sort of swap could be
structured in a way that meets Iran’s need for supply assurance with minimal added
risk to U.S. security. 

For example: Russia might supply low-enriched uranium
to France.  France would process
the uranium into fuel rods for Iran. Iran, upon receiving the fuel rods, would immediately
send the promised LEU to Russia.  Any
move by Iran to seize both LEU and fuel rods during the exchange would be immediately detected and would stand as a major provocation not merely to the United States and France, but to Russia,
Iran’s most important ally.  The
odds of that happening are quite small. 

Other variations of the deal might work as well.  The main point for the present is that while Western hawks and neo-cons have interpreted
Iran’s dissatisfaction with the stockpile deal as proof that Ahmadinejad is
just stalling for time -- or evidence that Iran is so riddled by internal faction
that it cannot deal at all -- this is not
true.  As seen, Iran has respectable
(if not compelling) reasons for wishing to modify the original stockpile deal.  Ahmadinejad
would not stall for time by approving and praising a deal his own side denounces
days later, thereby making himself look foolish.  Yes, Iran has internal factions that complicate its foreign
policy.  So do we; in fact, the United States leads the
world in bringing home agreements that it fails to ratify or demands be
modified thanks to its own internal factions – the Kyoto Protocol being merely
the latest example.  In this case,
Iran could say the United States is so paralyzed by faction that it cannot cope
with proposals to modify a simple stockpile deal. 

At the end of the day, the stockpile deal may be salvageable in modified form, or it may not.  Either way, long-term talks on the issue that matters most -- the future of Iran's nuclear program writ large -- can and should proceed in a constructive vein.   

What is needed now is not hot heads, moralistic
rhetoric and ominous reminders that we’re “losing patience” and “running out of
time.”  What is needed is leaders
with the pragmatism and vision to know a workable (if not perfect) deal when
they see it, and the courage to make that deal.   

*Richard Parker is a Professor of Law at University of Connecticut Law School and the Founder and Executive Director of the American
Foreign Policy Project (AFPP).  The
AFPP’s Iran Policy Group has studied all aspects of the Iran foreign policy
conundrum to produce a
offering rigorous analysis
and policy recommendations on the critical question, “What to do about
Iran.”  The views expressed in this
blog are his own