October 23, 2009

Iran: Having their (yellow) cake and eating it too

You can't make this stuff up.

After three days of talks - something in which Iran excels - the Iranians have thrown another wrench into the nuclear program talks between the Islamic Republic and the West, specifically the United States, Russia and France.

Just a few weeks ago, the Iranians claimed to be open to an arrangement whereby much of its enriched uranium would be exported to Russia and France for reprocessing into reactor fuel for their medical reactor in Tehran. On the surface, that appeared to diffuse one of the major issues between Iran and the West - Iran's continued enrichment of uranium.

This week's talks were held supposedly to continue work on that arrangement. However, yesterday and today there were conflicting and confusing signals from Tehran. It appears that the senior Iranian leadership now has reservations about the arrangement. We may be back to square one. I say "we" because although the West may be back to square one, the Iranians are continuing unimpeded in its nuclear research and development program - the centrifuges at Natanz and possibly the previously undeclared site near Qom continue to spin. While Iran and the West talk, uranium enrichment goes on - in fact, it has never slowed.

To complicate matters further, the Iranians proposed that instead of exporting most of its enriched uranium for reprocessing by the French into reactor fuel, that the West sell them the fuel for the small reactor. Their statement sounds a bit menacing. "The Islamic Republic of Iran is waiting for a constructive and confidence building response to the clear proposal of buying fuel for the Tehran research reactor," and warning the West to "refrain from past mistakes in violating agreements and make efforts to win the trust of the Iranian nation."

You have to almost admire the Iranians for their audacity. Basically what they are saying is, "Not only do we not want to send our enriched uranium to you to be processed into fuel for our reactor, we want you to sell us the fuel so we can keep our uranium and continue to enrich it for our own purposes (I say for nuclear weapons development), in essence, having our (yellow) cake and eating it too."

Do the Iranians think the West is that gullible? Evidently. Then again, what has the West done to disavow the Iranians of that notion? Nothing. The West has been threatening to impose sanctions for years. It has not happened, and the Iranians know full well that is not likely going to happen.

The Iranians have cleverly made oil export and refined product import deals with China. They also have convinced Russia to continue a close military hardware and nuclear power technology purchase agreement. Since both Russia and China are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council - meaning they each have veto power - the Iranian leadership has assessed (correctly in my view) that meaningful sanctions are not a threat. To make that point, the Russians reiterated their intention to continue "military-technical cooperation" with Iran. That probably means delivery of advanced surface-to-air missile systems in the not-too-distant future.

I expect there will be recriminations tossed back and forth about Iran's initial indications that it would agree to export its enriched uranium and its subsequent proposal to just buy fuel and keep its uranium. Then there will be a proposal to meet and have more talks - all the while, their program continues.

This is typical of what we have come to expect from the Iranians. Continue to enrich uranium, agree to talk.