The deadline for the Iran nuclear deal, which is aimed at limiting Tehran’s “breakout” capability in return for a lifting of economic sanctions, is looming closer. Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK and the U.S.) are expected to meet in Vienna for the final round of talks on Nov. 18-24.
As of now, it remains unclear whether Iran and the six world powers can end the decade-long negotiating process by this deadline. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently stated that he would like to “get this done” in November, while Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was less optimistic, claiming that another round of talks may be needed.
Recent reports, however, suggest that Russia might be more than just one of the P5+1 negotiators, but, indeed, a crucial component of any nuclear deal. Under the new proposal under discussions, Iran will ship its low enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia, where it will be converted into fuel rods for Iranian energy plants. Additionally, Tehran will be required to cut down on its 10,000 active centrifuges.
The goal of the talks is to prevent Iran from developing highly enriched uranium (HEU) necessary for production of nuclear weapons from its LEU. Iran presently possesses around 8.4 tons of LEU and operates 10,000 enrichment centrifuges, which may allow Tehran to reach “breakout” capability in 2 to 3 months. According to David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security, the reduction of Iran’s LEU stockpile to zero would increase the breakout time to 12 months, which is precisely one of the U.S. requirements.
It is not clear who initiated this type of a deal – Moscow, Tehran or Washington.
According to Anton Khlopkov, director of the Center for Energy and Security Studies, Moscow was an unlikely initiator of this scheme for Iran. “Iran and Russia have an intergovernmental agreement that regulates nuclear fuel deliveries, and Iran’s stockpiles of LEU are not Russia’s biggest concern, which is why Moscow initiating the deal would be quite surprising,” Khlopkov said.
Russia may have agreed to negotiate the new deal in September of this year, when Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani met on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Bishkek.
Likely emanating from Washington, the new approach has met with mixed reaction in Tehran itself. Quite surprisingly, hard-line loyalists of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei say they are ready to reach a nuclear deal with the world powers. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham, however, stated recently that Tehran rejects any reports of future uranium shipments to Russia. Such a harsh stance on the issue was likely dictated by the fact that the terms of the new deal were leaked to the media and did not remain secret until the Vienna talks on Nov. 18-24.
The outcome of the nuclear talks may now rest with Russia, however, Moscow’s consent to accept Iran’s LEU would be a show of goodwill rather than a financial calculation. Russia and Iran are bound by a ten-year contract till 2021, according to which Russia produces fuel necessary to keep Iran’s Bushehr reactors active out of its own LEU. The use of Iranian LEU will drive the cost of the fuel up, and will logistically complicate the process, says Khlopkov.
Russian Rosatom is currently the only company that can fuel Russian-designed pressurized water reactors, such as Iran’s Bushehr plant. According to Khlopkov, American company Westinghouse, which is attempting to produce fuel for Russian-designed reactors, could theoretically produce fuel for Iran, but due to existing sanctions against Iran, this is hardly possible.
For experts familiar with U.S.-Russia strategic arms reduction initiatives, Rosatom and Westinghouse are best known as part of a unique U.S.-Russia nuclear disarmament program that may have laid the groundwork for the proposed Iran nuclear deal. In 1993, Moscow and Washington signed a commercial agreement, which allowed converting highly enriched uranium left after dismantled Soviet nuclear warheads into fuel for U.S. nuclear power plants. A total of 500 tons of weapons-grade uranium enough for 20,000 warheads was disposed of as a result of this U.S.-Russia initiative.
While relations between Washington and Moscow have become increasingly tense recently, the new round of talks might not only reach the highly anticipated nuclear deal for Iran, but also revitalize U.S.-Russia ties. The deal is extremely important for the Barack Obama administration, which is under attack from the Republicans and the general public. But for Putin, Russia’s central role in this deal is a strong bargaining chip that may hold back some Western criticism about Russia.
While there is no consensus on the outcome of the Vienna round of talks among experts, Khlopkov believes that there is a chance that a deal will be signed. “We have seen significant progress in talks since Hassan Rouhani assumed the presidency in 2013,” he said. According to him, Iran and the six world powers may agree to basic principles of the nuclear deal in Vienna and negotiate remaining details within several months afterwards.