Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Iran, Uranium, and Frustrated Diplomats

Well, this week has certainly presented another interesting chapter in the ongoing saga of tense relations between the United States and Iran. On Wednesday, Iranian Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki announced that his country had refused to send its partly enriched uranium abroad to be converted into lightly enriched uranium for the purposes of medical research. Instead, Mr. Mottaki said that Iran wishes to reprocess the material within its own borders. This is in conflict with the deal agreed upon during diplomatic talks in October that included the International Atomic Energy Agency. Needless to say, many who had helped in garnering the deal found themselves a bit frustrated at the end of this week.
But let’s have a little sidebar before going forward: what exactly is this enrichment process and what does it mean for Iran or any country’s nuclear ambitions? With the help of the BBC’s brief “Nuclear Fuel Cycle” chart (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/sci_nat/05/nuclear_fuel/html/mining.stm), one can see the important highlights of the process and why the talks between Iran and other countries have focused on the enrichment process. Essentially, uranium is first mined and then is transformed from a powder ore to a solid known as yellowcake. It is then heated and converted into a gas that is fed through centrifuges, separating its denser atoms (U-238) from its lighter atoms (U-235). It is the U-235 atoms that a country looking to produced nuclear power or nuclear weapons will want to harvest. But here is the important difference: once the atoms are separated in the centrifuge, one needs to obtain uranium enriched to contain only 2-3% u-235 to work in a reactor. Conversely, weapons-grade uranium needs to contain 90% u-235.
So, with all that in mind, where are the talks at this juncture? Iran possesses a large amount of raw uranium and has shown at least a fledgling capability for converting it into lightly enriched uranium. But it appears as though it is only a matter of time before the Iranians are capable of producing weapons-grade enriched uranium. Now as to whether or not those of you reading this believe Iran has a right to this power or doesn’t, I’ll leave it for you all to debate. I’m merely interested in discussing the state of the argument. And right now, other countries are not thrilled about the Iranians’ reluctance to maintain their end of the October deal. France's Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner said he was disappointed.
"There is a clear and negative response from the Iranians," he said (BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8366880.stm).
President Obama has also publicly condemned the rebuff. Announcing in South Korea this past week, he said, "Iran has taken weeks now and has not shown its willingness to say yes to this proposal ... and so as a consequence we have begun discussions with our international partners about the importance of having consequences…We weren't going to duplicate what has happened with North Korea, in which talks just continue forever without any actual resolution to the issue," (Al-Jazeera News, http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2009/11/2009111962711262687.html).
In response to the strong statements, the Iranians have organized a massive military exercise throughout the western side of the country. The exercise began Sunday and is slated to continue for five days. Thus, the proverbial flexing-of-the-muscles has ensued on both sides. What will it mean in the long-run? Obviously, the true nature of any negotiation is difficult ascertain and predict from the outside, but what will be gained from this stand-off for the Iranians? And do the western nations pitted against the Islamic Republic have the resolve to back-up their strong words if Iran does not fulfill their end of the bargain? The notion of further sanctions on Iran has floated around as of late, but at least one Iranian official scoffs at the idea as being unnecessary and ineffective.
"Sanction was the literature of the 60s and 70s," Manouchehr Mottaki, who is currently visiting Philippines, said at a news conference (Al-Jazeera News , http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2009/11/2009111962711262687.html).
"I think they are wise enough not to repeat failed experiences," he said.
So can there be a diplomatic resolution in this tense climate? Honestly, I’m not sure. Hopefully it can, but it certainly won’t come easily.

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