Obama on Iran talks: "A constructive beginning"

The media seems more interested in the two-week deadline he lays down here for UN inspections at the Qom enrichment site (which will be met, I’m sure) but the real news comes at 1:35 when he talks about an agreement in principle to send some of Iran’s low-enriched uranium to another country so that it can be turned into fuel for nuclear power. What’s potentially significant about that? The Daily Beast explains:

President Obama’s statement about a confidence-building measure from Iran this afternoon left out the key detail: In a breakthrough agreement at talks in Geneva, Iran has agreed to send 1,200 kilograms of enriched uranium to Russia for further processing, two diplomats told the Daily Beast, noting this would mean Iran no longer has enough uranium to make a nuclear weapon…

Under the deal reached today, the two diplomats told the Daily Beast, Iran has now however agreed to send this uranium, which is enriched up to 3.5 percent, to be refined in Russia up to 19.75 percent enrichment and then returned to Iran. That enrichment level would enable it to be used at a research reactor in Tehran which could then burn the fuel to make medical isotopes. But it is not high enough for nuclear weapons.

The diplomats said this deal effectively amounts to a freeze of Iran’s nuclear work, and meets the condition for a second phase of talks at which nuclear issues will be discussed, as well as other proposals put forth by both sides.

If you believe that Iran only has 1,500 kg or so of low-enriched uranium on hand and if you believe there are no other secret Iranian enrichment/weaponization sites, then this is important. Remember, uranium isn’t bomb-capable unless it’s highly enriched, i.e. up to a 90 percent level; if Iran’s serious about wanting nuclear power but not a nuclear weapon, then its uranium only has to be enriched to a low level to be converted into fuel. Having Russia or some other third party take over enrichment duties is a way to make sure that the uranium is only processed to that lower threshold, not the higher one (unless, of course, you think Vladimir Putin would lie). If you don’t believe either of those things, though, then this logic goes out the window: Iran could simply feed Russia some low enriched uranium in order to soothe western fears about its nuke program while continuing to weaponize uranium in its secret facilities. Even if Iran’s on the level and is willing to send its entire current uranium stockpile to an outside party for processing, the machinery to weaponize uranium would still remain in place, ready and willing to go whenever Tehran decides to restart the program. In other words, unless Iran is willing to either disclose its remaining secret sites or agree to very intrusive inspections” to determine whether any secret sites exist or not, then at best this is simply buying time. Which isn’t a terrible outcome — it gives Mousavi’s green movement a little space to try to unseat the regime, after all — but it’s kicking the can down the road, not resolving the issue.

More talks are coming, apparently, perhaps at a higher level next time. Exit statistics via the new Fox News poll: 61 percent are willing to use force against Iran if need be and 69 percent think Obama hasn’t been tough enough. Number who say they’re worried about Iran getting nukes: 77 percent, which I guess is a further reminder of why Ron Paul will never be president.

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