Last week, President Obama said during his speech in Cairo that he wanted Iran to be able to pursue nuclear energy while not pursuing nuclear weaponry. The issues here are many, though using a nuclear plant as a stalking horse for building bombs isn’t really one of them. As we’ve noted before, Russia’s handling the fuel for the plant – which it built - under the auspices of the IAEA, so Iran has no viable options for mischief around Bushehr.
But where Iran may be fully foiled is in the creation of a fuel bank. And what is a fuel bank?
The basic idea is to have a relatively small, but guaranteed supply of low-enriched uranium available as a backup should a country's supplies of civilian nuclear fuel from other nations be cut off for political or other reasons. Of the dozen or so countries that now can enrich uranium, several - such as Brazil and South Africa - do so to guard against such disruptions, not to build nuclear weapons.
And this is the direction Obama wants to take:
As part of a new strategy to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, President Obama plans to seek the creation of the first-ever international supply of uranium that would allow nations to obtain fuel for civilian nuclear reactors but limit the capacity to make bombs, according to senior administration officials.
Why would this work, especially since Iran could retrieve uranium both licitly – through the bank – and illicitly – however?
"We want to give the Iranians an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to peaceful nuclear energy and serve as a new model," said a top administration official involved in crafting arms-control policy. "What we can do is create a system of incentives where, as a practical matter for countries that want nuclear power, the best way to obtain their fuel and to handle fuel services is through a new international architecture."
Okay, incentives, carrot no stick.
Iran's refusal to take advantage of the fuel bank "may give the US and other countries a stronger argument that Iran's program is really designed to give them a nuclear weapon potential," Kimball said.
This would be stick no carrot.
We should note that the bank isn’t a U.S. driven idea nor is its point only to paint Iran into a corner – the IAEA had already been working toward a bank for awhile. (See here, though, for IAEA’s page about Iran. Tons of information.)
That said, Iran’s activities have motivated a new push for the bank. (See here for more on that.) Russia and Kazakhstan have offered to host the bank (Kazakhstan signed a nuclear-free agreement with its neighbors recently, but got a waiver to host their bank; some sources say Russia is more likely to get it, but we’ll see) and the D.C. advocacy group Nuclear Threat Initiative has raised money from various countries (including the U.S.) to move forward with a bank under IAEA auspices.
The article raises a good set of questions about the fuel bank – with some of the answers fully baked and the rest depending on further decision making. But with Obama throwing his hat in and vocally using the bank as to deter Iran’s weapons ambitions, the idea here may be to provide that country a way out of the world’s bad books. A lot to wait and see, but a start on boxing in Iran.
The IAEA logo. Not terribly exciting – the U.N. really likes that calming blue - but we’ve never featured it here.