The Iran-IAEA LEU-for-TRR-fuel deal is running out of time, President Obama says. And as the LEU-TRR deal goes, it’s pretty safe to say, so goes the West’s preferred strategy of engagement and de-escalation of tensions.

This is just the latest episode in the month-long miniseries, “Negotiating over the Airwaves.”

Matters are actually looking up a bit since the low point of early November (see LEU-TRR: Dialogue of the Deaf, November 3, 2009). Around that time, IAEA DG ElBaradei went public with his role, telling Roger Cohen of the International Herald Tribune that Presidents Obama and Ahmadinejad “are talking through me,” but “total distrust” had led Iran to insist on “guarantees” and simultaneous swaps of LEU and TRR fuel. The latter change would eliminate the benefits of the deal from the perspective of the P5+1, especially the Western parties, since Iran would retain enough LEU for breakout.

Escrow

One way out of the impasse, ElBaradei suggested to Cohen, was an escrow proposal:

“There are a lot of ideas,” ElBaradei told me. “One is to send the material” — Iran’s uranium — “to a third country, which could be a friendly country to Iran, and it stays there. Park it in another state, then later bring in the fuel. The issue is to get it out, and so create the time and space to start building trust.”

ElBaradei elaborated further during a November 6 appearance on Charlie Rose, suggesting that Turkey could play the escrow role:

[The] IAEA will take custody of the material when it goes back until it comes back to Iran. So there is a lot of built-in guarantees. But the Iranians still would like to see the material stay in Iran until they get the fuel.

Well, that will not diffuse the crisis, because to get the material out of Iran will diffuse this perception that Iran has material that could be used for nuclear weapon. It will give Barack Obama the space, you know, to negotiate in a calmer environment.

I have been proposing — and everybody has been trying to be creative — I have been proposing to get the material into a third country. Turkey, for example, a country where Iran has full trust, you know, and keep it there until they get the fuel.

Shortly afterward, unnamed U.S. officials told the New York Times that they had “all but lost hope” that Iran would accept this idea.

Fuel Swaps

On November 9, the Iranian media took Tehran’s position public. It consists of two simultaneous swaps of LEU and fuel involving 400 kg LEU each, something well short of the Geneva agreement-in-principle or the Vienna compromise draft:

Sources close to nuclear negotiations told Press TV on Sunday that the proposal would envisage a two-staged, simultaneous exchange under which the UN nuclear watchdog, for each phase, seals 400 kg of Tehran’s low enriched uranium (LEU) inside the Iranian territory until the 20 percent enriched uranium required by the research reactor is delivered to the exchange site.

According to an anonymous Iranian source quoted by ISNA, by unveiling the escrow idea, ElBaradei was trying to “take advantage” of an upcoming visit by President Ahmadinejad to Turkey in hopes of reviving a compromise proposal that Tehran had already rejected, and would not revisit.

Glimmers of Light

If you are inclined to think that the LEU-TRR agreement is a good idea, the good news is that fuel-swap and escrow are compatible, providing both sides with an additional measure of reassurance. Just for example, instead of sending its LEU straight to Russia all at once, Iran can park it on Turkish soil, where a friendly government will be in power for the foreseeable future. Once fresh TRR fuel arrives, the Iranian LEU would move on to Russia, where it would be reflagged. Exchanging the TRR fuel for the LEU in phases ought to be possible — in Turkey. That’s one idea, anyway. (I’m not claiming that this proposal has been discussed.)

Optimists can take heart, too, from small signs of movement. During the Ahmadinejad visit to Ankara, the Turkish Foreign Minister told Bloomberg that the escrow idea was under discussion. In a November 9 press conference in Turkey that aired on national TV in Iran, Ahmadinejad made positive comments about Turkish involvement, comparing it to existing arrangements for natural gas exports. He added that Iran was now in a position to export “surplus” nuclear fuel.

The next day, a newspaper considered close to the office of the Supreme Leader reasserted the Iranian position, but then allowed that even if 1,200 kg LEU were to leave Iran, over 500 kg would remain.

In a televised address on November 11, Ahmadinejad added a new rationale for LEU export, telling Iranians that “Iran’s nuclear conditions are stabilized and we’ve entered the phase of nuclear interaction and cooperation,” extending even to “Iran’s contribution to a world fuel bank.”

Just yesterday, Turkey’s Energy Minister told journalists that his country is ready to store Iran’s LEU. That’s where matters stand for now, with Iran’s leaders seemingly negotiating with public opinion or with each other to find their way to a deal. The IAEA Board of Governors, which must approve the deal, meets for the last time this year on November 26. That’s the last stop before this train enters a long, dark tunnel.

Update: Edited for clarity.