This is a guest note exclusive to The Washington Note by Iran expert and well-known diplomatic correspondent Barbara Slavin, author of Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation
What Iran Threw Away
A senior U.S. official Wednesday confirmed that the United States offered the first civilian nuclear cooperation with Iran in three decades under the terms of a deal that Iran walked away from last fall.
Daniel Poneman, Deputy Secretary of Energy, said that had Iran accepted the deal – under which it would have shipped out two thirds of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium for further processing abroad – the U.S. would have inspected a 40-year-old reactor in Tehran to see if it was operating safely.
“We would have been well disposed to be helpful,” Poneman said at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “We were willing in support of IAEA efforts … to help assure that the Tehran research reactor was safe.”
Iran’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, told reporters after the meetings with Poneman in October that “one of the aspects in addition to the fuel is the control instrumentation and safety equipment of the reactor” and that “we have been informed about the readiness of the United States in a technical project with the IAEA to cooperate in this respect.”
A U.S. official said on background that the United States would examine the reactor, provided to Iran in the late 1960s when Lyndon Johnson was president and the Shah ruled Iran. However, Poneman’s remark was the first on the record confirmation of this.
This deal sweetener was well received by those close to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and allowed him to cast the package in a positive light.
Iranians much prefer U.S. technology to Russian nuclear knowhow. Some Iranians suggested that U.S. assistance might extend to the Bushehr reactor if a deal could be struck on the LEU. Bushehr, which was begun by the Germans in the Shah’s time, is now a “mess,” one official told me, a “hodge-podge of technologies” that Iran is afraid to run because it might “blow up.”
Ahmadinejad’s numerous opponents within Iran’s complex political hierarchy attacked the LEU deal as a sell-out — in large part because he had undercut their efforts to reach a nuclear understanding with the United States in the past.
Poneman said Wednesday that the offer remained on the table. Beyond the U.S. examination of the reactor, Russia and France would further refine 1200 kilograms of Iran’s low-enriched uranium and turn it into fuel rods for use in the research reactor, which produces medical isotopes for treatment of cancer and other ailments and is due to run out of fuel by the end of this year.
“It has not been formally withdrawn,” Poneman said of the deal. However, he confided later that the U.S. is “not chasing Iran” and that the Iranians know who to call if they are interested in coming back to the table. Otherwise, the United States will keep moving down “the pressure track” to increase the cost to Iran of its nuclear defiance, he said.
— Barbara Slavin