Obama Administration Gains an Extra Year to Negotiate with Iran

US foreign and national security policy was shaped – or hijacked – for two whole days this week by outsiders, who steered Washington towards places it had no wish to go.

Tuesday, Oct. 20, Kai Eide, head of the UN mission in Afghanistan, declared the presidential election must go to a second round on November 7. (A separate item in this issue discusses the impact of this decision)

Then, on Wednesday, Oct. 21, Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency until his retirement on November 30, tossed a draft proposal into the stalled three-power talks with Iran in Vienna, giving Washington, Tehran, Moscow and Paris until Friday to approve it.

The proposal would require Iran to transfer three-quarters of its enriched uranium stock, 1,200 kilograms, overseas and receive it back reprocessed as fuel for medical isotopes at its small research reactor near Tehran.

The temptation of this plan is that Iran will have to shift the bulk of its enriched uranium stock to Russia and France during the coming year and will therefore not have enough on hand to build a bomb during that time.

The arithmetic is simple: Iran currently produces 3.175 kg of 5% enriched uranium per day at its overt facility in Natanz. With1,200 kg. of this product out of the country for reprocessing, Iran will need to spin its centrifuges for another 377 days to make up the difference.

Obama must pay for the extra year in hard currency

This reckoning presupposes Iran has no more hidden enrichment sites unknown to Western intelligence and IAEA inspectors, like the one near Qom – which it most probably has.

Therefore, acting only on known data, ElBaradei's initiative, if accepted by Tehran, could buy the Obama administration another year for talking its rulers out of their nuclear weapon ambitions. The US president's December 2009 deadline for Iran to show it is playing by international rules will have shifted to the end of 2010, depending of course on Tehran's far-from-certain acceptance of the new draft proposal.

America's acceptance of the ElBaradei proposal will cost it dear. Already praised by Washington, Paris and Moscow (“a very positive step” – said State Department spokesman Ian Kelly Oct. 21), it incorporates implied acceptance by its signatories of the legitimacy of Iran's enriched uranium stockpile and its illegal production in violation of UN Security Council Resolutions. Tehran's right to enrich any amount of uranium it chooses in the future is no longer in question.

Neither does the draft agreement refer to Iran's overt or covert nuclear installations; address the nuclear reactor at Bushehr or the plutonium reactor at Arak. There is no mention of any concealed military nuclear plants or Iran's missile program. By buying the draft, Iran would gain the advantage of a document it can wave to prove that, by consenting to the reprocessing of its enriched uranium stocks overseas, it has gained legitimacy for all the other branches of its nuclear program.

Secret Qom Facility? What's that?

So while president Obama may win an extra year for negotiations, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stand to gain another year to keep their programs ticking over until the next deadline and possibly take them all the way to a finished nuclear weapon.

This was not the outcome President Barack Obama conceived of when he delivered his strong address to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 25 or at his joint appearance in Pittsburgh the next day with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, for the dramatic expose of a secret Iranian nuclear facility at Qom.

Then, Obama gave Iran an ultimatum of two weeks to reveal all its secret nuclear programs.

A month later, after his wish for big-power negotiations with Iran came true, the US president is forced into an unwanted corner. Since the talks began, Iran's deceptions and concealed programs, including the Qom facility, no longer interest the world. The overriding trend now is to secure a uranium enrichment arrangement full of holes. The ElBaradei proposal leaves all the primary issues of Iran's program up in the air save for a deal to have Russia and France take over part of Iran's uranium enrichment processing.

Thursday, October 22, some administration circles nonetheless found much advantage in the proposal. One commented: “This is a win-win situation: Iran is permitted to retain its coveted 'right' to enrich uranium, while the US administration builds safeguards against the material's diversion to weapons production.”

According to a more sober view, the US failed to build safeguards in 2009. There is no guarantee it will do better in 2010.

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