Iran Nukes Deal: What if Ahmadinejad Is Serious?

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Adriano Machado / LatinContent / Getty

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the Itamaraty Palace in Brasília

Conventional wisdom on Iran's latest response to a deal over shipping out enriched uranium is that Tehran is simply maneuvering to dodge sanctions. After all, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's comment Tuesday that Iran would have "no problem" shipping out some of its stockpile in exchange for reactor fuel comes months after he first welcomed the deal, and then demanded that it be renegotiated. And it coincides with the Obama Administration going to the mat to press for new sanctions against Iran. Still, even though Iran has long been adept at dividing international opinion and rolling back the red lines of its adversaries, there may be more to the latest indications out of Tehran than simply posturing.

Ahmadinejad had initially crowed over the deal brokered last October, but was forced to backpedal by a firestorm of criticism of the agreement from Iran's entire, fractious political spectrum. Tehran's demand for changes was rejected by the U.S. and its allies, who insisted that the package could not be renegotiated — and with Iran declining to accept its terms, Western powers began to press for new sanctions. Some of Iran's key trade partners, however, demurred, and other players began discreetly negotiating in search of a compromise to break the deadlock.

Reports have suggested that Ahmadinejad's latest statements may reflect progress in efforts to broker a plan for Japan to act as the guarantor that Iran would receive the processed reactor fuel — on a four- to five-month time frame, according to Ahmadinejad's statement — in exchange for the uranium it ships out into Japanese custody. (Ahmadinejad's new time frame appears to be a compromise between the original proposal, which envisaged a one-year lag between Iran exporting its uranium and receiving fuel rods, and Iran's demand for a simultaneous exchange on its territory. But until Iran formally delivers a new proposal to the IAEA, the details of any new proposals will remain a matter of speculation.)

The Iranian President could, of course, be simply trying to throw a wedge into Washington's sanctions effort, playing for time by raising false hopes of a deal. The Administration is struggling to win U.N. endorsement for meaningful new measures, with China in particular pushing back hard (and the escalating diplomatic spat between Washington and Beijing over Taiwan, the Dalai Lama and currency issues is unlikely to help persuade the Chinese to support new sanctions on Iran). Ahmadinejad could also be playing domestic politics, demonstrating his power to make deals with the West.

But there could be a simpler explanation for Ahmadinejad's apparent desire to revive the reactor-fuel deal: the Tehran Research Reactor, which produces medical isotopes, will run out of fuel this year, and it was Iran's attempts to buy new fuel that created the opening for the deal involving Iran sending its uranium abroad for reprocessing. Although Ahmadinejad likes to boast that if Iran can't acquire such fuel abroad, it will create it at home, that would take months or years of work, and the reconfiguring of Iran's centrifuges to produce a higher grade of enrichment would raise fears of the possibility of weaponization, and possibly calls for military action.

Still, as much as Iran needs the reactor fuel — and also needs to avoid any sanctions that would raise domestic economic hardship — Ahmadinejad also has to deal with suspicions among Iran's leaders that the deal was a trick that would deprive Iran of most of its hard-won uranium stockpile. That, of course, is a stated goal of the Western powers in pursuing the deal, because it would remove from Iran three-quarters of a stockpile that could, hypothetically, be reprocessed to create materiel for a single nuclear bomb. Replenishing that amount, at current rates of output, would take Iran the best part of a year, during which time Western powers hope to persuade Iran to end uranium enrichment altogether. But Iran has no intention of ending enrichment: the nuclear program is strongly backed by all major political factions in Tehran, and most of the international community accepts Iran's right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes.

Regardless of which version of the reactor-fuel deal, if any, is agreed on, the episode highlights the fact that it's unlikely to open the way to Iran accepting the broader Western demand that it cede its right to enrich uranium in exchange for various economic and political incentives. But if Iran makes a new offer on the reactor deal deemed reasonable by the likes of China and Russia, that could kill off prospects for further effective sanctions. And the dilemma would be deepened for Washington by the fact that Ahmadinejad clearly intends to profit politically from any deal at a moment when Obama is being urged by a growing chorus in Washington to throw in his lot with the embattled yet resilient opposition.

Still, the Western powers have more time to find a diplomatic solution than some of the more alarmist scenarios suggest. Testifying on Capitol Hill Tuesday, Director of National Intelligence Admiral Dennis Blair emphasized that the U.S. intelligence community's assessment is that Iran has not yet decided whether to build nuclear weapons, but that it is developing capabilities that would give it the option to produce such weapons "should it choose to do so." He added: "We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons, although it would be technically capable of doing so in the next few years."

Nobody's sure what exactly Iran will propose, and the U.S. and its allies remain skeptical. But the fact that they're unable to dismiss Ahmadinejad's latest statements out of hand is a reminder that the diplomatic game remains in play, and Iran still holds some cards.