High-ranking Iranian officials have said in recent days they are warming to the idea of sending the country's nuclear fuel abroad for further enrichment. Their statements, however, likely are a stalling tactic to prevent the West from forcing an ultimatum on Tehran in nuclear negotiations — either through sanctions with Iran's trading partners or possibly a military strike — while at the same time making Tehran appear to be negotiating in good faith.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki conveyed in a Feb. 3 interview with Turkish Radio Television that he had a positive discussion with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan over a Turkish proposal to store Iran's enriched uranium in Turkey. Mottaki said a fuel shipping agreement could be signed with Turkey if both parties can agree on timing and volumes. Mottaki's openness to the Turkish proposal comes amid numerous reports from STRATFOR sources within the Iranian government indicating that Tehran is attempting to re-open a diplomatic channel with the United States via Swiss intermediaries. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad followed up these back-channel messages with a public gesture Feb. 2 on state television, where he announced that Iran had "no problem" with the Western proposal to send Iran's low-enriched uranium (LEU) abroad for further enrichment to 20 percent. That proposal, however, requires Iran to ship at least 70 percent of its LEU stockpile abroad all at once for conversion into metal fuel rods and medical isotopes for use in a nuclear reactor located in Tehran. The idea behind the proposal is to remove enough LEU from the Islamic republic to at least significantly slow down any efforts by Iran to enrich its uranium stockpiles to weapons-grade (around 90 percent enriched) for a nuclear device. Ahmadinejad deliberately avoided specifying whether Iran was also on board with this crucial aspect of the proposal. Iran's conciliatory approach is not surprising at this stage of the nuclear negotiations. Iran is attempting to deflect pressure from Washington over the nuclear controversy, particularly as the United States bolsters the defenses of its allies in the Persian Gulf and as both Israel and the United States make some headway in pressuring more European firms to downgrade their trade ties to Iran. With major trading partners like Germany starting to shift their position on sanctions, Iran faces a pressing need to fracture the U.S.-led sanctions coalition. Iran can do this by appearing conciliatory on the various nuclear proposals on where and how to enrich Iran's uranium, thereby providing diplomatic cover to those businesses and governments that would much rather avoid anything beyond negotiations in dealing with the nuclear issue. If pressed to agree to a deal during the negotiations, Iran likely will try to delay by quibbling over the timeline of the swap, the quantity of LEU it is willing to part with and its distrust of whichever overseas partner is designated to enrich Iran's LEU. The nuclear fuel Iran imported in 1993 for its Tehran medical research reactor is expected to run out soon. However, Ahmadinejad now is claiming that Iran has mastered the technology to enrich its uranium up to 20 percent. It is difficult to discern the veracity of this claim, but the political motive is clear: By claiming that it is no longer in need of the West's services to enrich its uranium, yet showing that it is still willing to entertain various nuclear proposals and negotiate directly with the United States, the Iranian regime can appear to be participating in good faith in its nuclear negotiations with the West in order to buy time, dilute sanctions pressure and stave off a military confrontation.