Behind Iran's Response on the Nuclear Deal

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Samuel Kubani / AFP / Getty

Delegates from France, Iran, Russia and the U.S. in Vienna on Oct. 19, 2009

Iran announced on Thursday that it had delivered its response on a proposed nuclear deal to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. It appeared to signal that its answer — not yet made public — is to accept the framework of the agreement to reprocess some of its enriched uranium abroad to create fuel for a medical research reactor but at the same time demand important changes to the deal. As Tehran has kept the world waiting over the past week, conventional wisdom has held that Iran is playing for time, testing the limits of international political resolve, and hamstrung by internal political divisions. There's a measure of truth to these claims. But more important, the reason that Iran and the West are struggling over an agreement envisaged as a first step toward greater cooperation is that the two sides don't share a common destination.

The draft agreement discussed at the talks in Vienna last week would have Iran ship 2,645 lb. of its low-enriched uranium (some three-quarters of the stockpile that was enriched at its Natanz facility) to Russia by the end of this year. There it would be enriched to a higher grade and converted into fuel plates in France, after which it would be shipped back to Iran to power the Tehran medical research reactor. Western governments, which fear that Iran has already stockpiled enough enriched uranium to be reprocessed into a single bomb, like that the deal would remove most of Tehran's stockpile and return it in a state difficult for Iran to weaponize. Though there are no signs that Iran is working on turning its uranium into a bomb, the West wants the material moved out of Iran in a single shipment, and by the end of this year. That way, they say, it will take Tehran another year to replenish its stockpile to current levels, setting back the supposed "ticking clock" of a potential Iranian bomb and allowing more time to negotiate an end to Iran's enrichment program.

Iran, needless to say, sees things differently. It has no intention of relinquishing its uranium-enrichment program, which it insists is for the peaceful purpose of a civilian energy program and is its right as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). And what it likes most about the Vienna deal is that it can be read as tacit acceptance of Iranian enrichment; the stockpile at the heart of the deal, after all, was enriched in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

"In the past, they said that we had to halt our nuclear activities," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Thursday, hailing what he called the new "cooperative" stance of the West. "But today they say, 'Come consult about finding solutions for world problems,' and they want to cooperate for the exchange of fuel and development of nuclear technology and establishing a nuclear plant." He reiterated that Iran has no intention of relinquishing its "nuclear rights," typically a reference to uranium enrichment.

Israel, which has threatened military action if Iran's nuclear program is not stopped, has been increasingly critical of the Vienna deal for the very reasons that Tehran welcomes it. "[The agreement] means that [the U.S., Russia and France] recognize that Iran is enriching uranium and that helps [Iran] with their argument that they are enriching uranium for peaceful purposes," Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Thursday. "It is important to insist on an end to enrichment in Iran."

Partly because of the discrepancy between their ultimate intentions, Iran doesn't trust some of its negotiating partners — particularly France, which has adopted the most hawkish position among the Western powers against any Iranian enrichment. In other words, the very thing that Western powers like about the proposal — that it separates Iran from its uranium stockpile — is precisely what the Iranians fear as a prelude to moves to end all of its enrichment.

It's not hard to see how the competing underlying objectives influence both sides' approach to the deal. Having tried unsuccessfully to sideline France from the deal, Iranian officials have talked of possibly extending the range of suppliers of enriched uranium to include China — which is fast emerging as Iran's most significant economic partner and is not aligned with the more dire Western reading of Iran's intentions. And Iran will likely insist that it send its uranium to Russia in smaller installments and over a longer time frame, to test the bona fides of its partners without surrendering most of its stockpile at the get-go. But the French and other Europeans warn that such adjustments would be a deal breaker — precisely because their prime objective is to remove Iran's stockpile.

Tehran's goal is to develop the full nuclear-energy fuel cycle, which includes enriching uranium. While legitimate under the NPT as long as it is subject to IAEA monitoring, such a program would nonetheless give Iran the capacity to move relatively quickly to build a bomb, which is why Western leaders have argued that Iran can't be trusted to maintain an enrichment capability even as part of its nuclear-energy program.

Given the two sides' sharply different ideas on the end point of their mutual journey, it's not easy to agree even on substantial "confidence building" measures. Iran appears to be open to greater safeguards and oversight of its ongoing nuclear work, like opening its hitherto secret enrichment facility under construction at Qum to inspection for the first time on Oct. 25. But at the same time, it is expected to push back against some provisions of the Vienna deal.

While the Western powers are likely to blanche at making any changes, Tehran may be more focused on how its response is received by China and Russia. After all, the threat of sanctions that hangs over Iran for non-compliance is considerably diminished without their support. And while Moscow and Beijing may support efforts to press Tehran for greater transparency on its nuclear intentions (and while they have backed the Vienna deal), they don't share the Western powers' assessment that Iran's enriched-uranium stockpile represents an imminent bomb threat. That's why an even more challenging response for the U.S. and its allies than a simple "No" is an ambiguous "Yes, but ..."