Here’s why Iran wants to maximize its enrichment capacity

When it was recently reported that Iranian and P5+1 negotiators are still not really even in the same ballpark when it comes to Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity, I wrote about where the two sides were coming from on the issue. Then I linked to a piece in Arms Control Now that assessed how much enrichment capacity Iran “really needs,” which isn’t all that much as long as you assume that Russia will do the evidently (at least at the moment) self-interested thing and keep supplying Iranian reactors with all the enriched uranium they need. But Gareth Porter had a good piece at yesterday explaining why Iran is unwilling to make that assumption, and they’ve actually got a point: Russia has reneged on plenty of deals, for uranium and otherwise, with Iran in the past:

Russia negotiated an agreement with Iran in February 2005 to supply enriched uranium fuel for the reactor and to take back all spent fuel. Later in 2005, Moscow offered Iran a joint uranium enrichment venture in Russia under which Iran would send uranium to Russia for enrichment and conversion into fuel elements for future reactors. But Iran would not gain access to the fuel fabrication technology, which made it unacceptable to Tehran but was strongly supported by the Bush administration.

Bush administration officials then began to dangle the prospect of a bilateral agreement on nuclear cooperation – a “123 Agreement” – before Russia as a means of leveraging a shift in Russian policy toward cutting off nuclear fuel for Bushehr. The Russians agreed to negotiate such a deal, which was understood to be conditional on Russia’s cooperation on the Iran nuclear issue, with particular emphasis on fuel supplies for Bushehr. The Russians were already using their leverage over Iran’s nuclear program by slowing down the work as the project approached completion.

A U.S. diplomatic cable dated July 6, 2006 and released by WikiLeaks reported that Russ Clark, an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nuclear safety official who had spent time studying the Bushehr project, said in a conversation with a U.S. diplomat, “[H]e almost feels sorry for the Iranians because of the way the Russians are ‘jerking them around’.”

It goes on from there, including a Russian decision in 2009 to withhold delivery on hundreds of surface to air missiles it was contracted to supply to Tehran. Porter also mentions the fact that all the countries, including the US, France, and Germany (all part of the P5+1, funny how that works), that had contracted with the shah to provide nuclear fuel and expertise to Iran promptly reneged on their commitments in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Now, you can argue that these past failures to honor deals with Iran were prompted by American pressure on the countries that wound up reneging, and you’d be right, and you can argue that Russian-US relations are at such an ebb that American pressure would be unlikely to sway Russia the way it did in the mid-2000s, and you’d probably be right, at least for now, but it’s hard to blame the Iranians if they don’t see it that way. They don’t want their nuclear program to be dependent on foreign suppliers (admittedly, they’d still have to buy raw uranium even if they had no limits on their enrichment capacity, but raw uranium is much easier to obtain). If they want any sanctions relief, however, they’re going to have to accept that dependence, at least for a decade or so.

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