Iran Nuclear Program: Tehran’s Latest Fuel Swap Offer

If the fuel swap proposal designed to end the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program were a cat, it would be up to its sixth life by now. But Iran has just floated yet another counteroffer: a swap of all of its low-enriched uranium for the fuel cells — fabricated from 20 percent enriched uranium — needed to power its medical reactor. The hitch is that the exchange, as formulated by the head of Iran’s nuclear energy agency, would have to be conducted on Iranian territory and simultaneoulsy. That is, Iran would hold onto its LEU, under IAEA seal and oversight, until the fuel cells were completed and delivered.

That doesn’t seem to me, at first glance, to be an insurmountable hitch. It increases the risk of the deal for the West, but in a way that distributes that risk more evenly. Under the previous terms, Iran essentially relinquished its bargaining chip, the LEU, with nothing but the West’s good-faith guarantee as collateral. In this configuration, the West would be forced to engage in a costly exercise based on Iran’s good-faith guarantee, meaning that it, too, is held hostage to the terms of the deal. As a trust-building exercise, that shifts the emphasis dramatically, but not in such a way as to render it useless.

I’m not sure what kind of reception this will receive from the West. It could be too little, too late. It could also be that I’m underestimating what the West requires from Iran at this point, in terms of trust-building. Finally, there’s the problem of the credibility of Iranian statements at this point. It’s hard to tell who is speaking for the Iranian government, let alone who in the Iranian government is making the decisions on this dossier. And it remains to be seen whether any Iranian counterproposal will be able to rise to the West’s threshhold without triggering the Iranian domestic consensus’ tripwires.

But this seems like a proposal that merits serious consideration. It also raises a series of questions, likely to be debated at length elsewhere: Where did this offer come from? And why now? Was it the (long-shot) threat of (tepid) sanctions? Was it Russia’s (mixed) signals of a shift in position? Did the Chinese send a private message to Tehran? Could it be a clever way to take advantage of the current U.S.-Israel spat, by showing a reasonable side? I don’t know, but I’m sure we’ll be hearing a lot of speculation in the days to come.

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