News / Middle East

Iran Offers to Exchange Low-Grade Uranium But on Iranian Territory

The head of Iran's atomic energy agency, Ali Akbar Salehi, is making a new proposal for the exchange of Tehran's low-grade uranium with the West, Wednesday, offering to carry out the exchange at once and on Iranian soil.

Iran's official Press TV signals a new proposal for a nuclear deal Wednesday that atomic energy chief Ali Akbar Salehi is offering the West. Salehi says that Tehran is now prepared to ship 60 percent of its low (4 percent) enriched uranium to the West, but in one batch, and on Iranian soil.

Iran failed to accept a draft nuclear deal by the West last November, giving contradictory signals from various officials. Iran also made a counter-offer calling for the exchange to take place gradually in 400 kilogram batches. Iran has an estimated stockpile of 2,065 kilograms of low-grade uranium, according to the United Nation's International Atomic Energy Agency.

Tehran says that it needs the more highly enriched (20 percent) uranium for its medical research reactor. Under the draft UN deal, 1200 kilograms of its low-grade stockpile would be sent to France and Russia for further enrichment before eventually being sent back to Iran.

Atomic energy chief Salehi told Iran's hardline daily Javan that Iran is now "ready to deliver the total amount of fuel in one go, on the condition that the exchange take place inside Iran and simultaneously."

Emanuele Ottolenghi, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, who has written extensively on Iran's nuclear program, explains that the logic of the West's original deal-to remove a large portion of its uranium stockpile from the country was just a stopgap measure and is slowly becoming meaningless.

"It is perplexing why Iran would turn [the original] deal down, because the truth is that, if indeed Iran wants to use the stockpile to produce weapons grade fuel, at the rate of current production, losing 1200 kilos to the West for the kind of further enrichment [proposed] would put Iran with a stockpile of 800 kilograms, which means that within 2 months Iran would have enough to build a bomb and in under a year it would have replenished its stockpile by continuing to enrich at [its main enrichment facility at] Natanz," said Ottolenghi.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced in February that Tehran would produce its own 20 percent more highly enriched uranium fuel, since the West, he alleged, refuses to do so. Mr. Ali Akbar Salehi repeated afterwards, however, that Tehran would stop producing 20 percent fuel if the West would agree to an exchange deal on Tehran's terms.

Emanuel Ottolenghi believes that President Ahmadinejad's announcement, coupled with Iran's recent advances in missile technology, including the launch of a rocket carrying a turtle, worms and mice into space, means that Tehran has thrown down the gauntlet to the West.

"Iran has crossed a very significant technological threshold. In order to enrich uranium from zero-the natural state one finds it-to 4 percent, it is about two-thirds of the time needed to produce weapons grade material and that is because to enrich it at 4 percent, the centrifuges must spin a lot more to get rid of the lighter atoms inside the natural uranium and get the heavier ones out," he said.

"Now, from 4 to 20 percent is a much simpler process. It takes a lot less time. The next stage will be 60 and then 90. By enriching to 20 percent, the Iranians many not have told the world we can produce the fuel for the Tehran research reactor on our own, but we certainly have figured out how to spin our centrifuges well enough to enrich weapons grade material," he added.

Ottolenghi argues that Iran's stockpile of lowgrade uranium is probably, at this point meaningless, because Tehran has now enough know-how to produce a totally different batch of weapons grade nuclear fuel at a clandestine facility other than its main Natanz facility.

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