US sees hopeful sign in Iran pausing 20% stockpile

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The Obama administration sees a potentially encouraging sign in the fact that Iran held flat its stockpile of higher enriched uranium last summer, the New York Times reports. However, analysts note that Iran subsequently resumed growing its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium in the fall and suggested the Iranian leadership’s intentions remain unclear.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported in August that Iran had diverted almost half its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium for medical use, thus keeping its stockpile of the higher enriched fuel steady at 91kg between May and August.

“One American official said the move amounted to trying to ‘put more time on the clock to solve this,’ characterizing it as a step ‘you have to assume was highly calculated, because everything the Iranians do in a negotiation is highly calculated,’” the New York Times’ David Sanger and James Risen reported Thursday (Dec. 27).

However, the latest IAEA Iran report from November shows that diversion of 20% fuel for medical purposes had not continued in the fall. Rather, Iran resumed adding to its 20% stockpile, which had grown to almost 135 KG by November 18th. (It would take about 200 KG of 20% enriched uranium to be higher enriched to weapons grade — 90% purity–to produce enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb.)

Former Iranian nuclear negotiator Hossein Mousavian told the Back Channel the explanation for the temporary diversion is simple: Iran has now produced enough 20% enriched uranium to build the fuel rods needed for the Tehran Research Reactor that produces isotopes to treat Iranian cancer patients. Thus, “from now on and as a confidence building [measure], Tehran [can] try either to convert or to slow down the production amount,” Mousavian said by email Friday.

However, given that the pause in Iran’s growth in its 20% stockpile did not continue into the fall, some Iran and arms control analysts expressed puzzlement at the US official’s reported assessment of the development, noting it comes amid a lot of mixed signals.

“There’s a real effort to indicate that things are going swimmingly and that a resumption of talks is imminent,” Patrick Clawson, deputy director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the Back Channel Friday, adding his own view is that is “overly optimistic.”

“With the latest evidence”— that Iran had resumed growing its 20% stockpile—“there is less of a reason” to be confident in what Iran intended to signal with its diversion of 20% uranium for medical purposes last summer, the Arms Control Association’s Greg Thielmann told the Back Channel Friday. “Not that it removes it entirely. It still applies.”

“It makes it even more important what happens the next time: if we see a continuation of the diversion of the 20% stockpile, that would be quite significant,” Thielmann continued. “But if we continue to see an accumulation of 20% uranium hexaflouride gas, that weakens the earlier interpretation.”

A spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told the Back Channel Thursday they had still not received a response from Iran about a possible date and venue for its next meeting with the P5+1–the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany.

An Iranian lawmaker signaled Thursday that Iran is hashing out what might be an acceptable venue and bargaining position.

“No agreement has been reached on the venue of the negotiations; Istanbul might be an option, but we will not negotiate with the Westerners in countries that have embargoed us,” Alaeddin Boroujerdi, Chairman of the Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, was cited by Iranian media Thursday.

“If such an approach”—that includes sanctions relief—“is considered as the basis (of talks), we will be able to come close to an understanding,” Boroujerdi continued.

The United States issued another feeler to Iran seeking direct talks after the US election last month, the New York Times also reported. But it received “no real response,” the paper said, citing a senior US official: “It wasn’t that they said yes or no. They said nothing.”

(Photo: International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Yukiya Amano reacts as he attends a news conference during a board of governors meeting at the UN headquarters in Vienna November 29, 2012. REUTERS/Herwig Prammer.)