Iran Talks to Focus on Fuel Swap, Nuclear Monitoring

Global powers are set at multilateral talks with Iran this week to pursue the resuscitation of a uranium exchange proposal as well as broader authority for the International Atomic Energy Agency to audit Iranian nuclear facilities, theWall Street Journal reported today (see GSN, Jan. 19).

“Prospects for exploring a fuel swap will depend on whether Iranians are ready to get serious,” said a high-level U.S. official linked to the two-day session due to begin tomorrow in Istanbul, Turkey. “Remember, this is meant as a confidence-building measure to begin to demonstrate that their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.”

The United States and other Western powers have feared Iran’s uranium enrichment program is geared toward weapons development, though Tehran has maintained its atomic ambitions are strictly peaceful.

Under a 2009 bid put forward by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran would have exchanged 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium for material to fuel a medical isotope production reactor in Tehran. The Middle Eastern state ultimately rejected the plan worked out with France, Russia and the United States, which was aimed in part at deferring Iran’s ability to produce sufficient weapon material for a bomb long enough to more fully address U.S. and European concerns about Iranian enrichment activities.

The three world powers expressed concerns about an alternative fuel swap plan delivered last May by Iran, Turkey and Brazil. Turkey has indicated it would not participate in Iran’s meeting this week with the five permanent U.N. Security Council member nations and Germany, but multiple European officials said they believed Ankara’s foreign minister would play an informal role in the talks (Jay Solomon, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 20).

Iran does not have a new proposal involving an exchange of its stockpiled uranium, Reuters quoted members of the nation’s negotiating team as saying today

“I haven’t heard about it,” said Ali Bagheri, a deputy under senior Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili.

“There is no new proposal,” a second government source said. “This is something created by the Western media. Why should we propose such a thing?” (Parisa Hafezi, Reuters I, Jan. 20).

While this week’s meeting can address broad nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament matters, it should not focus specifically on Iranian nuclear activities, said Abolfazl Zohrevand, another Jalili staffer.

“If the West wants to deal with Iran’s nuclear case separately, Istanbul will not be its place, because Iran’s nuclear program is transparent and supervised by the (International Atomic Energy Agency),” Agence France-Presse quoted Zohrevand as saying (Agence France-Presse I/Channel News Asia, Jan. 20).

Meanwhile, the Obama administration was weighing whether to pursue new U.S. sanctions against Iran, AFP quoted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as saying yesterday.

“We think that there are some entities within China that we have brought to the attention of the Chinese leadership that are still not as, shall we say, as in compliance as we would like them to be,” Clinton told ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

“And we are pushing very hard on that and we may be proposing more unilateral sanctions,” she said. Chinese President Hu Jintao was visiting Washington this week (see related GSN story, today).

“Now, the Chinese response is they are enforcing the sanctions they agreed to in the Security Council; they did not agree to either European, American, or Japanese sanctions that were imposed unilaterally,” Clinton said.

“Our response to that is, look, we share the same goal, we need to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state; so therefore, even though technically you did not sign up to our unilateral sanctions, we expect you to help us implement them,” she said (Agence France-Presse II/Google News, Jan. 19).

Senators Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) in a letter last week told President Obama that “China’s record on sanctions enforcement and nonproliferation is inadequate and disappointing,” Foreign Policy magazine reported (Josh Rogin, Foreign Policy, Jan. 18).

Moscow, though, cautioned Washington today against discussing new Iran penalties, Bloomberg reported.

“Unilateral sanctions are serving as spoilers and undermine efforts for a joint solution,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. “They are counterproductive” (Tirone/Harvey, Bloomberg, Jan. 20).

“If we can agree on the perspectives for future talks [at this week’s meeting], this will be a good result,” Reuters quoted Lavrov as saying.

“The approach of Russia and the other participants is that the focus of the debate ought to be Iran’s nuclear program and resolving the unresolved problems in this program. But this meeting doesn’t have just one topic. Canceling the sanctions against Iran should also be discussed,” he said. The U.N. Security Council has adopted four sanctions resolutions against Iran to date (Ayla Jean Yackley, Reuters II, Jan. 20).

Switzerland yesterday announced it was moving to further restrict transfers of sensitive items to Iran (Fredrik Dahl, Reuters III, Jan. 19).

Meanwhile, Iran apparently boosted the output of its uranium enrichment centrifuges by 60 percent in 2010, potentially enabling the Persian Gulf nation to generate enough material for a basic nuclear weapon in five months, the Associated Press quoted a new Federation of American Scientists analysis as saying. Tehran would first have to expel IAEA inspectors and withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

“Contrary to statements by U.S. officials and many experts, Iran does not appear to be slowing down its nuclear drive,” the report states.

“The biggest issue with recent statements that Iran’s nuclear drive has been slowed down is that we are getting a false sense of security that we have bought more time,” FAS analyst Ivanka Barzashka wrote in an e-mail message. “That takes away from the urgency … (of) a diplomatic breakthrough.”

Former IAEA safeguards chief Olli Heinonen said he could not “dispute the correctness of the figures” in the analysis, but added that a nuclear “breakout” would be a “suicidal mission” for Tehran (Associated Press I/Google News, Jan. 20).

Former IAEA Deputy Director General Pierre Goldschmidt expressed concern about Iranian work on laser-based uranium enrichment, National Public Radio reported today (see GSN, Aug. 2). The U.N. nuclear watchdog has known in recent years that Iran has examined the experimental technology, according to NPR.

“Laser uranium enrichment technology is one of the most difficult and sophisticated enrichment (technologies). So far it (has) no industrial or commercial application,” Goldschmidt said.

Iran appears to have once used the technology on a provisional basis at its now-shuttered Lashkar Abad facility, he said.

“The agency determined — and this is all public information — that they had this enrichment facility, and that some part of the design of the equipments were relevant for the production of high-enriched uranium” suitable for weapons, Goldschmidt said (Peter Kenyon, National Public Radio, Jan. 20).

In Iran, technicians were apparently putting in place a system designed to alert authorities of potential computer-based strikes, AP yesterday quoted an expert as saying.

“It can monitor in real time all the abnormal activity in the networks,” said Shai Blitzbau, technical director for the computer security firm Maglan Group.

The system is “a first response and a logical one by Iran,” said Jeffrey Carr, a computer security adviser to Washington and other governments. “But it doesn’t really mean much to prevent attacks. It’s the cyber equivalent to eating right, taking your vitamins and hoping you don’t get sick” (Associated Press II/Google News, Jan. 19).

In Berlin, the head of a state-backed think tank told U.S. officials that covert action would be “more effective than a military strike” in addressing Iran’s disputed nuclear work, the London Guardian quoted a leaked 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable as saying (Josh Halliday, London Guardian, Jan. 18).