The Deal That Got Away: The 2009 Nuclear Fuel Swap with Iran

| January 2021

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In October 2009, an opportunity arose to break the longstanding impasse over Iran’s controversial nuclear program. President Barack H. Obama had broken with his predecessor, President George W. Bush, by committing the United States to participate fully in the P5+1 (the United States, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, plus Germany) nuclear negotiations with Iran without pre-conditions. Following a 15-month hiatus, a round of talks among the P5+1, European Union (EU), and Iran took place on October 1, 2009. On the margins of that meeting it was agreed, in principle, that Iran would ship out the majority of its stockpile of 3.5% low-enriched uranium (LEU) in exchange for the other parties further enriching this material and fabricating it into fuel assemblies for Iran’s Tehran Research Reactor (TRR)—a reactor primarily used to produce radioisotopes for medical treatments and diagnoses. The critical technical contours and details were set to be negotiated by experts in Vienna, Austria, on October 19.

Over three days of intense negotiations in Vienna, sponsored by the outgoing Director General of the IAEA and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, U.S. negotiators joined with French and Russian counterparts to secure Iran’s agreement, pending final review in respective capitals, to what became known as the “TRR fuel swap proposal.” A confidence-building measure of mutual benefit, the proposal was welcomed by many as a “win-win” solution that would potentially create much needed time and space for more comprehensive negotiations and a larger diplomatic breakthrough to curtail Iran’s increasingly advanced nuclear program.

While these difficult negotiations succeeded in producing an ad referendum agreement on the TRR fuel swap and included the highest-level bilateral engagement between the United States and Iran since the 1979 Iranian Revolution up to that point, the deal ultimately unraveled following Iran’s backtracking from the terms agreed to in Vienna.1

With concerns and uncertainties regarding Iran’s nuclear future persisting to this day, this paper seeks to review the TRR negotiations and the context in which they unfolded in order to capture some of the lessons of negotiating with Iran regarding its nuclear program, primarily from the viewpoint of senior U.S. officials involved at the time. The paper is also informed by the personal perspective of one of the authors (Poneman) who led the U.S. delegation in the 2009 Vienna talks, and who, prior to this publication, had not publicly elaborated on his experience. The other author (Nowrouzzadeh), who supported the TRR talks in an analytical capacity within the U.S. Department of Defense, also conducted an extensive interview with Poneman as part of their collaboration on this paper. By drawing on existing literature and recent interviews with several senior U.S. officials involved in the negotiations now that over ten years have passed, the authors seek to draw useful lessons from this episode that can assist policymakers in understanding Iran’s nuclear decision-making and in their continued efforts to shape the future trajectory of Iran’s nuclear program.



The tortuous history of U.S. and international efforts seeking to address proliferation concerns raised by Iran’s nuclear ambitions reveals diplomatic failures as well as threads of diplomatic progress. Despite its uncertain future at the time of this publication, the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), negotiated over roughly two years of intense diplomatic engagement among the P5+1, EU, and Iran, nevertheless remains by far the most significant achievement within this complex diplomatic history, having rolled back, halted, and opened up Iran’s nuclear program to what the IAEA termed “the world’s most robust nuclear verification regime.”2 Yet just over one decade ago, in October 2009, after years of stalemate following the first major public exposure of Iran’s illicit nuclear activities in 2002, and well before the JCPOA would come together, Iran tentatively agreed, in principle, to a significant confidence-building measure with the P5+1 regarding its nuclear program, often referred to as the “TRR fuel swap proposal.” While the deal ultimately collapsed and was overshadowed by subsequent events, the TRR negotiations were an important precursor that in many ways set the stage for events that led to the subsequent successful negotiation of the JCPOA. How did that initiative come to pass, how was it lost, and what can we learn from the experience as it relates to negotiating with Iran regarding its nuclear program?


An Iranian Request to the IAEA and an “Ingenious” Proposal

In 1967, a dozen years before the Islamic Revolution overthrew the U.S. allied Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the United States agreed to supply Iran with the TRR, a five-megawatt-thermal, pool-type light water nuclear reactor, for the production of medical radioisotopes. Its provision was part of broader nuclear cooperation taking place between the United States and Iran at the time under President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace Program, launched by Ike in 1953 to reverse “the fearful trend of atomic military build-up” and to assist other countries in developing strictly peaceful, civilian nuclear programs for the benefit of all humanity.3 Initially, the reactor operated with highly-enriched uranium (HEU), in which the uranium-235 content was enriched from the 0.7% concentration found in the natural uranium mined from the ground, to the 93% concentration that could produce not only medical radioisotopes, but also nuclear weapon-grade material.

For many years the United States supplied other countries with research reactors using HEU, but the diversion by India of peaceful nuclear assistance to build its first nuclear explosive in 1974 led U.S. policymakers to try to reduce the risk that other nations might also misuse weapon-grade material for explosive purposes. In the late 1970s, the United States began a systematic policy to encourage the conversion of HEU-fueled reactors to core designs that could run on lower concentrations unsuitable for weapons use, instead of weapon-grade HEU. In that same spirit, the TRR was eventually converted by Argentina’s Applied Research Institute and by 1993 was running on 19.75% enriched uranium—known as “high-assay low-enriched uranium,” or “HALEU”—supplied by the institute.

The TRR has been used primarily to produce medical radioisotopes for an estimated 850,000 kidney, heart, and cancer patients in Iran in recent decades.4 However, undeclared activities at the facility have raised proliferation concerns in the past. For example, the IAEA reported in 2004 that between 1989 and 1993, Iran produced polonium-210 at the TRR, a radioactive isotope that has civilian, industrial uses but can also be used, in conjunction with beryllium, in a neutron initiator to start the chain reaction that leads to the detonation of certain nuclear devices.5 Iran admitted to the production of small amounts of polonium-210 but insisted it did so in order to study neutron sources for use in radio-isotope thermoelectric generators.6

By 2009, the fuel powering the TRR was expected to run out in the coming year to eighteen months.78 Lacking an indigenous capability to replace that fuel at the time, in June 2009 Iran sent a formal request to the IAEA for assistance in locating suppliers of 19.75% enriched uranium fuel rods to power the TRR. The IAEA, led by ElBaradei, initially only shared Iran’s request with the United States and Russia.9 In his 2019 memoir, The Back Channel, William J. Burns, the U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs during the 2009 talks, recalled: “The implication seemed clear: Either ElBaradei would produce an alternative supplier, or the Iranians would produce the material themselves—and move closer to weapons-grade enrichment.”10

According to Burns, ElBaradei suggested that Iran be supplied with the fuel rods, which posed no real nuclear weapons proliferation risk, so as to deny them a justification to produce the fuel at home by enriching uranium to higher levels.11 This made sense: Iran’s possession of 19.75% enriched uranium that was embedded in fuel elements and placed in the TRR under IAEA safeguards indeed posed little proliferation threat; that material could not easily be diverted under the watchful eye of the IAEA. Even if it were, the diverted solid fuel elements would need to be disassembled and the HALEU fuel reconverted into a gas and then reinjected into Iranian centrifuges in order to reach the high level of enrichment required for a nuclear weapon. This would require Iran to master several steps similar to spent fuel reprocessing to separate, purify, and convert uranium from the TRR fuel, a complex process with limited use for any other purpose.12 On the other hand, if Iran itself enriched uranium hexafluoride gas up to 19.75% uranium-235 content, it could simply continue circulating that same gas through the same centrifuges to enrich that material up to 90% weapons-grade HEU. In fact, due to the nature of uranium enrichment, enriching uranium up to 19.75% levels would mean most of the effort needed to enrich to the 90% weapon-grade levels would have already been completed.13

Some U.S. officials believed that Iran made its request to the IAEA knowing that it would likely be left unfulfilled, in order to justify Tehran’s own efforts to enrich uranium to higher levels, potentially en route to producing weapon-grade materials to develop a nuclear weapon. Gary Samore, who served as the White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction during the TRR talks, believed Iran’s request was “basically a ruse to justify higher enrichment levels under the guise of civilian nuclear requirements.”14 (Iran did go on to enrich uranium to near 20% in February of 2010 and produce fuel plates for the TRR in 2012.15) This seemed all the more likely due to UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1737’s prohibition on the import or export of sensitive nuclear materials, including LEU, to or from Iran. There were also a very limited number of suppliers of such niche fuel. One potential supplier remained Argentina, but its relations with Iran were strained, in part due to Iran’s alleged role in directing the 1994 bombing of a Jewish Center in Buenos Aires carried out by the U.S. designated foreign terrorist organization, Hizballah.16 France was an additional potential supplier, but was known for maintaining a particularly hard line when it came to Iran’s nuclear program and shared a difficult history with Iran when it came to nuclear cooperation.17

IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei (center) sought an Iran breakthrough in his final weeks in office.


With such factors in mind, Samore and Robert Einhorn, the State Department Special Advisor for Nonproliferation and Arms Control, took the opportunity to build upon ElBaradei’s thinking to deny Iran a justification to enrich to higher levels. Against a backdrop of a “reset” in U.S.-Russia relations and broader convergence of strategic outlook regarding nuclear matters more broadly, they led efforts with Russian officials to craft a creative and constructive response to Iran’s request.18 Providing what ElBaradei described in his 2011 book, The Age of Deception, as an “ingenious” proposal to the IAEA in September 2009, Iran would send Russia approximately 75% of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) stockpile—1200kg of product enriched to roughly 3.5% uranium-235.19 In return, Russia would supply around 120kg of material enriched to about 19.75% uranium-235 and fabricated by France into fuel assemblies for the TRR. Such an arrangement would enable the operation of the reactor for 10-15 years.

Puneet Talwar, then Special Assistant to President Obama and Senior Director for Iraq, Iran, and the Gulf States at the National Security Council (NSC), recalled that the TRR fuel swap was an opportunity for the United States to potentially “call Iran’s bluff” and test its intentions.20 The proposal was considered by many to be a “win-win” solution. The P5+1 would secure the removal of the vast majority of Iran’s LEU stockpile from Iranian soil, while simultaneously removing any justification for Iran to enrich to near 20% uranium-235, ostensibly to resupply the TRR but also advancing Iran far down the track to producing the 90% uranium-235 material needed for nuclear weapons. The swap could also reinforce the viability of Iran relying on foreign-supplied nuclear fuel to meet its domestic needs, potentially undermining its insistence on maintaining an indigenous mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle to do so.21 At the same time, the arrangement would help Iran fulfill its domestic medical requirements for nuclear fuels, would not require Iran to abandon its domestic enrichment program as a precondition (which Iran sought to portray as tacit recognition of a “right” to enrich), and would provide the Islamic Republic an opportunity to reduce the world’s suspicions of its nuclear intentions.

Following 15 months of hiatus (and an April 2009 announcement that the Obama administration would break with the previous administration and participate fully in the P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran without pre-conditions), a meeting was set to take place in Geneva among the P5+1, the EU, and Iran on October 1, 2009. The parties were to discuss Tehran’s nuclear program and the TRR proposal. Just weeks prior to the negotiations, it was revealed publicly at the G20 Summit by President Obama, standing alongside British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, that the United States, the United Kingdom, and France had provided detailed evidence to the IAEA regarding Iran’s secret construction of a uranium enrichment facility at Fordow. Designed to house 3,000 centrifuges and buried near a mountain outside the city of Qom, President Obama clarified that while Iran had a “right to peaceful nuclear power that meets the energy needs of its people,” the “size and configuration of this facility” was “inconsistent with a peaceful program.”22 Despite Iran’s effort to pre-empt the United States and inform the IAEA about the Fordow facility just prior to this public revelation, later that month ElBaradei made clear that Iran was on the “wrong side of the law insofar as to inform the agency at an earlier date.”23

These events contributed to the sense of urgency that was building in advance of the Geneva meeting. The impact of the revelation of the Fordow facility was compounded by a drumbeat of time-critical events, including Iran’s steady nuclear advancements in defiance of growing international pressure;24 the Obama administration’s end-of-the-year timeline for testing Iran’s seriousness amidst growing Israeli angst;25 the impending departure of IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei, who had a unique ability to serve as a trusted interlocutor between the United States and Iran;26 and the near-term potential for additional sanctions, including a new UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) on Iran’s nuclear program. Further, the domestic political crisis within Iran following Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election in June 2009 (discussed further below) left him in search of an expedient means to reassert his authority and solidify his legitimacy domestically and internationally.27

With these dynamics at play, the TRR proposal had the potential of creating much needed time and space for more comprehensive negotiations. According to a 2011 interview with Dennis Ross, who at the time served as the State Department Special Adviser for the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia, the United States was “trying to do something that would buy time, create a different atmosphere between us [the United States and Iran], show that there could be an understanding and create the space for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear program.”28 Many hoped it could serve as a first step towards a larger diplomatic breakthrough. At the very least, according to ElBaradei’s reflections: “An opening had been found for the United States to elegantly reengage with Iran” and “diplomacy would at last get its foot in the door.”29 This theory was supported by the apparent receptivity to the TRR proposal among senior officials in Tehran in advance of the October 1 meetings.30 According to ElBaradei, when provided with a copy of the proposal, the Head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) Ali Akbar Salehi smiled and said “This is a very smart proposal” and, following consultations, indicated to ElBaradei that Iran was “generally in agreement with the plan.”31

U.S. delegation (right to left): Poneman, Einhorn, Talwar, and Ryu worked closely throughout the talks.


An October 1 Meeting in Geneva and a Tentative Understanding

Representatives of the P5+1, EU, and Iran sat down for what turned out to be substantive talks in Geneva on October 1. The roughly 7.5 hours of negotiations included a bilateral meeting between Burns, the head of the U.S. delegation, and Saeed Jalili, the head of Iran’s delegation and Secretary of Iran’s Supreme Council for National Security (SCNS). While Burns had once before shared a negotiating room with Jalili during a round of P5+1 negotiations with Iran during the Bush administration in July 2008, in those talks the United States attended primarily as an observer. 32 This time around, Burns was authorized to participate fully in the negotiations, including through bilateral engagement with Iran. His bilateral meeting with Jalili represented the highest-level talks between the United States and Iran since 1979 up to that point.

This meeting provided an opportunity for both sides to present their broader perspectives and to discuss the TRR fuel swap proposal together in detail.33 EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana highlighted that the negotiations had been “enhanced by the full participation of the U.S. for the first time.”34 By the end of this round of talks, Iran agreed to allow the IAEA access to inspect the newly-revealed Fordow enrichment facility and to convene with world powers again later that month. Yet the most significant result was the tentative agreement of all parties, in principle and in consultation with the IAEA, to have Iran ship out the majority of its stockpile of 3.5% LEU in exchange for 19.75% HALEU fuel that was needed to replace the aging fuel in the TRR.Technical details were set to be worked out by relevant experts in Vienna on October 19.


Skepticism Grows

While U.S. negotiators believed they were speaking with officials who could credibly negotiate on behalf of Iran’s government and held a direct line to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, following the October 1 talks skepticism grew quickly in Washington that Iran might be playing for time and would not follow through on its tentative commitment to the fuel swap proposal.35 President Obama made clear that while he welcomed the constructive engagement in Geneva, he expected “swift action”from Iran, making clear that his commitment to meaningful diplomacy was not to be mistaken for an interest “in talking for the sake of talking.”36 The U.S. Congress was also readying new sanctions to further pressure Iran’s leaders.37

Meanwhile in Tehran, the Ahmadinejad administration and its hardline allies were hailing the Geneva talks as a great success and implicit recognition of Iran’s right to enrich uranium. Upon his return to Tehran, Jalili highlighted that the P5+1 “did not mention the suspension of uranium enrichment” during the Geneva talks.38 Senior hardline Iranian cleric Ahmad Khatami further underscored that, following the negotiations, there had “not been any word of suspension [of enrichment]….”39 Other influential officials, including initially Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, expressed optimism regarding the outcome of the Geneva talks.40 (Later, however, Larijani would become a strong opponent.) Others simultaneously began dismissing the U.S. focus on deadlines, signaling that, if the talks failed, Iran would proceed to higher levels of uranium enrichment in order to produce its own fuel for the TRR.41 Amid such signals, and as part of his central role in promoting the TRR talks, ElBaradei traveled to Tehran to try to solidify Iran’s agreement to the understandings reached in Geneva prior to the Vienna negotiations.42 Nevertheless, the intervening weeks leading up to the October 19 discussions led many to doubt whether Tehran would ultimately follow through with its tentative agreement to the fuel swap proposal, particularly given its ongoing domestic political crisis.

Soltanieh (center) and the Iranian delegation seemed happy to participate in the talks in Vienna.


The “Green Movement” and a Backdrop of Political Crisis in Tehran

The June 2009 announcement that Ahmadinejad had won a second term in office by a landslide in the face of credible evidence of widespread electoral fraud gave rise to the so-called “Green Movement”—arguably the greatest challenge to the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy since its inception up to that point.43 Millions of protesters took to the streets in Tehran and other Iranian cities—many decorated in green, the campaign color of Ahmadinejad’s main opponent, former Iranian Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi—pointing to a rigged election and demanding change.44 Mousavi and the former Speaker of Iran’s Parliament, Mehdi Karroubi, who had also run in the record turnout election, assumed de facto leadership of what was a fragmented but ultimately powerful movement.

Some participants in the movement limited their demands to having their votes counted. Others called for more fundamental reforms. Still others called for a complete overhaul of the governing system. As journalist Scott Peterson recalled in his 2010 book, Let the Swords Encircle Me, based on his extensive reporting and travel to Iran around this time: “Many Iranians were enraged. Many were afraid. Some were murderous. Some burned posters of the Supreme Leader. The streets echoed with the chants of ‘Death to the Dictator’ and ‘Death to Khamenei.’”45 Major protests continued for months and were met with violent crackdowns, mass arrests, torture, televised forced confessions and killings by Iran’s security apparatus.46 Eventually this overwhelming response crushed the movement’s momentum. The events nevertheless garnered the attention of the international community, thanks in part to brave Iranians who captured images and videos on their cellphones for the world to see.

President Obama strongly condemned the violence and expressed his strong support for the aspirations of Iran’s citizens, noting that “In 2009, no iron fist is strong enough to shut off the world from bearing witness to the peaceful protests of justice….Those who stand up for justice are always on the right side of history.”47 As noted by Burns in his 2019 memoir, “such criticism….was not only the right thing to do, it was also a useful reminder to the Iranian regime that we weren’t so desperate to get nuclear talks started that we’d turn a blind eye to threatening behavior, whether against Iran’s own citizens or our friends in the region.”48 While the movement dissipated over time in the face of violent crackdowns, many Iranians continued to demonstrate their willingness to risk their lives to make their voices heard. Indeed, as numerous occasions since have revealed, serious grievances remain, and many wounds of 2009 remain open just below the surface of society even today.49

The post-election crisis included clashes not only between civilian protesters and security forces but also among Iran’s senior leadership regarding the movement, subsequent crackdown, Ahmadinejad’s authority more broadly, and even the future trajectory of the Islamic Republic. Fissures among Iran’s political elite became increasingly clear and the partisan competition intense. Against this backdrop, the internal debate in Iran regarding the TRR fuel swap proposal swirled in the lead-up to the technical discussions set to take place in Vienna on October 19.


The “Vienna Group” and an Ad-Ref Agreement

The “Vienna Group”, consisting of the parties that would have implementation responsibilities as part of the fuel swap—i.e. the IAEA, the United States, Russia, France, and Iran—began a round of negotiations focused on the technical contours of the proposal on October 19. The U.S. delegation was headed by U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman. This made Poneman the highest-ranking U.S. official to meet with Iranian officials since 1979.50

Poneman had no idea this assignment was coming. In early October, he received a phone call from Nikolay Spassky, a senior Russian diplomat whom Poneman had known for years and was now serving as the Deputy Director General for International Relations of the Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom), the Russian state-owned enterprise responsible for all nuclear policies in the Russian Federation. “So I expect I will be seeing you soon in Vienna?”, Spassky asked. Having no plans to go to Vienna, Poneman then called his staff to ask whether any IAEA meetings were scheduled in Vienna that he might be expected to attend. None were. Then, over the weekend, Burns called Poneman to tell him about the scheduled Vienna talks and the likelihood that he would be asked to lead the U.S, delegaion. “I just did not want you to be surprised,” Burns said. “Too late,” Poneman replied.

Thus forewarned, when U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Thomas E. Donilon subsequently called him to ask him to lead the delegation, Poneman countered that Under Secretary of State Bill Burns would be more appropriate.51 Having been only a few months at the Department of Energy, Poneman was worried about the time this assignment would divert from other work at the Department. Donilon countered that Burns had already set the stage diplomatically for the Vienna talks, noting that the theory of the TRR talks was that they should be of a “technical nature” to avoid politicizing them.52 As such, it made more sense for a technical agency like the Department of Energy to lead the delegation. Pressed by officials at the NSC, Poneman agreed to lead the U.S. delegation. The White House was hoping that the Iranian delegation would be led by Salehi, given his technical expertise, political influence, and important role in Iran’s nuclear-decision making.53 However, according to Poneman, Donilon expressed concern that recent remarks by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton might be used as a pretext by Tehran to low-ball the talks by not sending Salehi as head of delegation. By sending a deputy cabinet secretary, the White House hoped to demonstrate seriousness and also avoid giving Iran a protocol-based excuse not to send Salehi.54 The gambit did not work; in the end, Salehi did not attend. ElBaradei confirmed that following Clinton’s remarks, effectively issuing what was perceived by Iran as an ultimatum to agree to the TRR proposal and (rightfully) criticizing Iran’s leadership for its human rights abuses in the aftermath of its 2009 election, Iran reportedly informed him that while it had originally planned on sending Salehi to the Vienna talks, it would no longer do so. 55 According to recent reflections from the U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA at the time, Glyn Davies: “In retrospect, this was likely an early indication of the degree of Iranian reticence toward reaching a deal with outside powers. Or at least, an early sign of the difficult domestic political context in which the TRR deal would be judged in Tehran.”56 Nevertheless, Poneman recalled that Salehi was the eminence grise behind the Iranian delegation, providing critical guidance at each stage and effectively calling the shots from Tehran in his communications with the head of Iran’s delegation, Iranian Permanent Representative to the IAEA Ali Asghar Soltanieh, as well as in daily phone calls with ElBaradei, whom he knew personally.57

Before the parties arrived in Vienna, ElBaradei had worked feverishly behind the scenes to maximize the prospects for a deal. According to Poneman, “He prided himself on his ability to talk freely to all of the parties, and wanted to leverage that ability to bring them together in support of this proposal… He told me about his meetings with President Ahmadinejad, signaling his ability, given his moral authority as leader of the IAEA and political skills, to marshal support for a deal. He had a forceful personality, knew what he wanted to accomplish, and knew also that in a few short weeks his tenure as Director General of the IAEA would expire. So he—and the other delegations—were all working against the clock.”58 Davies also recalled: “Prior to the TRR talks getting underway, ElBaradei had been attending a range of receptions marking the end of his tenure. When the TRR talks began, ElBaradei disappeared from this celebratory scene, causing puzzlement around the Vienna International Center (VIC). Many were wondering where the ‘Man of the Hour’ had gone and this fed lots of speculation and, on the part of Israeli officials, real concern about what was happening.”59

In Vienna, Poneman led a strong delegation, which included Davies from the U.S. Mission to the IAEA; Talwar, Rexon Ryu, and Michael A. Hammer from the NSC staff; James Timbie, Robert Einhorn, and Newell Highsmith from the Department of State; and Steven Aoki from the Department of Energy. Most of these individuals had known each other and worked together for decades, and the delegation operated as a team without a trace of interagency friction or rivalry.60

The White House remained intensely focused on the negotiations in Vienna, and the NSC Deputies Committee—chaired by Donilon and including three State Department representatives (Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, Burns, and Ross) as well as representatives from the Department of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Intelligence Community—kept the delegation under close watch, if not on a “tight leash.”61 Indeed, Poneman recalled that the negotiations consisted of “virtually three straight 24-hour days, with the U.S. team negotiating all day with the parties in Vienna and then getting on a secure line late at night Vienna time to discuss developments with the Deputies Committee in Washington… Denis McDonough, then the NSC Chief of Staff, would shoot me short, encouraging messages, and said that the President really appreciated our efforts, which inspired us to keep at it, and made up for a lot of lost hours of sleep.”62

At the formal opening of the talks, ElBaradei presented himself as an above-the-fray mediator.63 Although the proposal on the table had initially been suggested by ElBaradei himself, in order to preserve his ability to mediate differences between the other parties he could not be seen as pushing for the proposal.64 As such, according to Poneman, he initially gave the floor to Soltanieh, who years before had worked at the TRR. Soltanieh made a straightforward case to the participants on Iran’s critical need for fuel for the TRR, citing humanitarian concerns and Iran’s need to produce medical radioisotopes for cancer treatments. Then, however, Soltanieh launched into what Poneman termed “a full-out assault” against the French, who would be the providers of the special silicide fuel required by the TRR, insisting they could not be trusted as a party to the swap.65

The distrust stemmed in part from Iran’s experience with Eurodif, a French-led multilateral enrichment consortium that owned a gaseous diffusion plant located in France. Prior to Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran became a 10% shareholder of Eurodif with the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, providing a $1 billion loan to the French Atomic Energy Commission in exchange for access to nuclear fuel from the facility. Following the Iranian revolution, however, the deteriorating relations between Eurodif’s other partners and Iran—aggravated by Tehran’s halt of payments to Eurodif as well as sanctions imposed on Iran—precluded Eurodif from delivering any nuclear fuel or enrichment services to the Islamic Republic.66 “The French still owe us money,” Soltanieh complained during the initial session of the Vienna talks.67

According to Poneman, to break this initial impasse, ElBaradei shifted his approach. No longer presenting himself as a neutral arbiter with no vested interest in the proposal, ElBaradei took ownership of the idea. He relayed to the Iranian delegation that, even if they did not trust the French, they would not need to do so. Rather, all they would need to do is put their trust in the IAEA, which would take custody over the material and put it under safeguards. To further insulate the arrangement from any political interference, ElBaradei suggested that these arrangements would be made with the IAEA staff, without needing to go through political review by the IAEA Board of Governors.68

When the Iranians continued to resist this proposal, the Russians then stepped up to the plate.69 Spassky, Moscow’s lead negotiator, offered that Russia would subcontract the manufacture of the fuel plates to France so that Iran would not have to deal directly with the French.70 In other words, Iran would only be in privity of contract with the Russians, and the Russians would take on the burden of subcontracting the manufacture of the fuel to the French. So now both the IAEA and the Russian Federation would effectively intercede between the French and the Iranians, providing two layers of reassurance and thereby mitigating any risk of a French interruption of supply.7172

Despite such efforts, Iran’s posture was shifting, as Soltanieh continued to backtrack from what had been agreed to, in principle, in Geneva, insisting that the 1200kg be shipped out in batches, simultaneous with Iran receiving TRR fuel manufactured from an external source of HALEU. According to nuclear nonproliferation expert Mark Fitzpatrick, such a construct would have greatly diminished the confidence-building value of the swap and “would have meant that Iran would not part with any of its LEU for the years’ time it would take to produce a fuel load, by which time its stockpile would presumably have grown by another weapon’s worth of LEU.”73 Following Iran’s insistence, ElBaradei again decided to go above and beyond his initial role as a convener of the negotiating parties, offering that the IAEA would take custody of Iran’s LEU “from the time it left Iran until it was returned in the form of fuel.”74 According to Poneman, ElBaradei also reassured Iran that the IAEA itself would step in and guarantee the supply of material for the TRR if parties failed to live up to their commitments.75

When the French offer to supply the TRR fuel, reinforced by commitments by the IAEA and the Russians to backstop that offer, still fell short in the effort to secure Iran’s agreement, the last arrow in the quiver was for the U.S. delegation to step up to the plate.76 Poneman realized that any U.S. move to support the deal had at least two dimensions. On the surface, U.S. support could provide another level of reassurance to the Iranians that they would not be tricked out of sacrificing their cache of LEU in exchange for an unfulfilled promise to provide a fresh load of HALEU fuel for the TRR. But, more profoundly, tangible U.S. support for the deal would be viewed in Iran as a powerful political signal of increased recognition of Iran’s nuclear program and enhancement of its global stature.

The U.S. side was keenly aware of both dimensions, creating an inherent tension. While eager to close a deal that would contain the Iran nuclear threat to some extent in order to allow space for more comprehensive talks, the U.S. government was reluctant to confer political benefits to Tehran. As Poneman recalled: “Given the continued level of antagonism between the United States and Iran, it was a bridge too far to directly offer any sort of backstopping guarantee to Iran, or for Iran to accept one. That said, the Iranians did appear to covet the cachet of re-establishing some relationship with the United States, and the United States sought to leverage that cachet by offering technical support for a safety upgrade of the TRR, but only through the good offices of the IAEA. In other words, the United States would offer technical assistance to the IAEA, and the IAEA would dispatch that technical instance to support the TRR refueling.” 77

Meanwhile, Iran’s continued insistence that it would only export its LEU in small batches also led to an additional impasse over modalities of the LEU export. This prompted ElBaradei to directly contact Salehi, who, according to ElBaradei, initially agreed to exporting all 1200kg of LEU in one shipment if the United States agreed to be Iran’s counterpart, instead of France or Russia. In response, according to ElBaradei’s 2011 account, the U.S. delegation “scrambled to call Washington for guidance at around four o’clock in the morning, D.C. time.”78

Poneman could not agree to Salehi’s proposal within his existing instructions from Washington and instead countered that the United States would “issue a political statement of support and would commit to helping Iran upgrade the safety of their old research reactor.”79 The Iranian side initially agreed on this construct only to later backtrack and suggest unpalatable alternatives. Such dynamics might explain why ElBaradei recalled: “We were balanced on a high wire, somewhere between a momentous breakthrough and failure.”80 These developments were followed by Poneman and Soltanieh holding direct talks on the margins of the negotiations in ElBaradei’s Vienna office. Soltanieh only agreed to participate if ElBaradei was present.81 According to Poneman, it was a “professional exchange” between the two national representatives, who sat in armchairs facing one another across the small coffee table in ElBaradei’s dimly-lit office, with the IAEA director general sitting between them at the far end of the table.82 It served as an opportunity for Poneman to stress to Soltanieh the humanitarian confidence-building value of the TRR proposal and highlight President Obama’s willingness to explore whether this first step, if successful, could lead to more constructive engagement.

When the delegations assembled for what would turn out to be the final negotiating session in Vienna, the parties had still failed to reach agreement on the modalities of the exchange. In order to make one final effort to close the gap, Poneman suggested that the delegations break for an hour to allow them to caucus and consult their capitals. At that point, Spassky took the floor and argued against the recess, stating that if the delegations left the room, they would never come back, and the deal would fall apart. That argument resonated with Geoffrey Pyatt, then U.S. deputy chief of mission to the IAEA, who also cautioned the U.S. delegation from leaving the room: “Let’s stay here. They might get the yips if we leave.” 83 Poneman agreed to go ahead, and the final plenary got under way. Recognizing that he was negotiating at the outer limit of his instructions from Washington, Poneman winced at the early hour (around 5:00am Washington time) but knew he had to call Donilon to seek approval to commit the United States to work with the IAEA to help improve safety and control implementation of the TRR in its capacity as a member of and in response to a request from the IAEA Board of Governors. 84

Donilon requested more time to consider the arrangement. Poneman said, “Tom, I have a room full of people milling around and ready to leave. I don’t know how much longer I can hold them here. I am sorry but I need an answer now.”85 Donilon paused and reflected for a moment, then approved the U.S. negotiating position.86 Poneman reflected: “I really appreciated that strong NSC support…. Now the Iranians had nowhere else to turn and the onus was effectively on them, as other parties had all stepped up to the plate. All along I had said that it was critical that if the talks broke down, that the cleavage divided Iran from the rest of us, and that no divisions appear among the other parties.” 87

At that point, the final details were quickly hammered out, and by the time the grueling talks concluded on October 21, an ad-ref agreement was reached. The next step would be to send the text of that agreement for final review, and hopefully approval, to respective capitals, by the IAEA-specified deadline of October 23. Under this understanding, Iran would export approximately 1200kg of LEU at once and place it under custody of the IAEA for transfer to Russia for further enrichment. Russia would then arrange for the manufacture of nuclear fuel assemblies by France to then be delivered to Iran, through the IAEA. The United States would issue a message of political support and readiness to work with the IAEA to help improve safety and control implementation of the TRR.

Such an agreement would have immediately reduced the Iran nuclear threat, while opening the door to the possibility of a comprehensive understanding concerning Tehran’s nuclear program. It also had the potential of serving as a first step towards a more constructive relationship between Tehran and Washington—one that could have involved direct engagement on other threats to U.S. interests, including Iran’s ballistic missile development, support for terrorism, destabilizing activities across the region and human rights abuses. But it was not meant to be.


A Tentative Understanding Unravels

The United States, France and Russia all contacted the IAEA to confirm their support for the TRR fuel swap proposal by the October 23 deadline. Iran did not. To the intense frustration of the other parties, Tehran stalled, informing the IAEA verbally that it was considering the proposal “in depth and in a favorable light,” but needed until the following week to come to a final decision.88

Inside of Iran, it was clear that as the details of the arrangement were becoming increasingly subject to public debate, a consensus decision to move forward with the proposal was becoming more elusive. Some reactions appeared to be influenced by a spike in nationalist sentiment regarding Iran’s nuclear program and a broader, deep distrust of the West, particularly following statements from U.S. officials seeking, from the perspective of Iranian officials, to portray Iran as negotiating from a position of weakness and emphasizing the deal’s benefit of denying Iran the ability to make a bomb—something Iran had long denied it sought to do despite the U.S. intelligence community assessing that Tehran was pursuing an organized, covert weapon design program until it was halted in 2003.8990
Influenced in part by the deep internal political rifts that shook Iran’s decision-making establishment following the 2009 presidential election, Ahmadinejad’s rivals from across the political spectrum also began to accuse him of selling out Iran’s interests. Many prominent political players including, ironically, some who would have generally been expected to support reaching a nuclear compromise with the West, prioritized denying Ahmadinejad the political win of delivering a nuclear deal with major world powers that might have shored up his legitimacy at home and abroad.

According to his 2012 memoir, The Iranian Nuclear Crisis, former member of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team under reformist President Mohammad Khatami, Seyed Hossein Mousavian maintained there was obstinacy across the Iranian government following the election and “every action taken by the Ahmadinejad administration (regardless of whether it was correct or a mistake) was met with a wave of critical articles and declarations from the opposition on websites, satellite TV networks, and even on the floor of the Majles.”91 Mousavi accused Ahmadinejad of surrendering Iran’s nuclear rights and bowing down to foreigners.92 Larijani, who had himself been rebuked by Ahmadinejad for seeking to reach nuclear compromises in his prior role as a lead nuclear negotiator, reversed his initial optimism regarding the fuel swap proposal and labeled the understanding a U.S. plot meant to trick Iran into shipping out its LEU under a false pretext.93 As Samore recalled, from the perspective of the deal’s critics inside of Iran, “Iran was surrendering valuable material in exchange for empty promises of future delivery. I think someone likened it to exchanging ‘jewels for walnuts.’”94

Nikolay Spassky led the Russian delegation. (Reuters / Herwig Prammer)


A number of conservative parliamentarians also rejected the deal, some insisting that economic sanctions should be lifted prior to Iran’s agreement to export its LEU.95 Other Iranian officials became increasingly critical of the fact that Iran was being singled out, questioning why Iran wasn’t able to purchase nuclear fuel like other countries without exporting its own LEU stockpile. Iran’s current president Hassan Rouhani, a former chief nuclear negotiator under President Khatami, also later criticized the proposal, likening it to a long-term suspension of enrichment.96  Einhorn, Talwar, and Newell Highsmith, a member of the U.S. delegation in Vienna and State Department legal expert, all reflected in interviews that there seemed to be a false perception building in Tehran that the U.S. emphasis on the export of Iran’s LEU meant that Tehran must extract a very high price for it, hardening Iran’s position over time. Highsmith went further, noting that Iran’s negotiators seemed to want to “bring talks to the brink of collapse to test whether they had gotten every possible concession out of the United States and its partners.”97

Ahmadinejad nevertheless continued to try to sell the deal as a major win for Iran, stating: “[The West] has previously talked of halting and suspending everything, but now they are talking about fuel exchange, nuclear cooperation, building nuclear power plants and reactors. They have moved from confrontation to cooperation.”98 Yet his efforts at persuasion came up short and it became clear that, despite mixed signals related to whether Iran’s decision-makers were earnestly seeking a deal with the West, absent domestic political consensus among key elite, Khamenei would not back the deal as negotiated.99 Just weeks after the Vienna meetings, Khamenei lashed out, claiming that U.S. officials tactically offered smiles to Iranian officials, while hiding daggers behind their backs and continuing to threaten Iran.100 As Burns noted in his 2019 memoir, “Iranian politics are a brutal contact sport, and the TRR deal was one of its many casualties.”101

After weeks of indications that Iran would not agree to the ad-referendum agreement as it had been negotiated, Tehran ultimately sought to renegotiate the terms of the tentative understanding. According to ElBaradei, Salehi continued to introduce and then retract proposals as part of his search to secure a deal he could sell to a domestic audience.102 In November 2009, the Obama administration reportedly put forward and Iran failed to respond to an offer to ship its LEU stockpile to Turkey, where it would be held in escrow until fuel for the reactor was delivered to Iran.103 Nevertheless, in late November, Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki publicly announced that Iran would consider “swapping it [LEU] simultaneously with nuclear fuel inside Iran” making it clear that Iran would not agree to anything short of the LEU physically remaining on Iranian territory until it could simultaneously swap it for fuel.104 According to ElBaradei, Salehi informed him that Khamenei felt the “international treatment of Iran’s request for fuel for its research reactor was becoming an indignity,”and that he would only accept a swap whereby Iran shipped out batches of 400kg upon simultaneous receipt of the fuel.105 This remained the position that Iran would convey to the IAEA in the coming months. With the turnaround time for the production of the fresh nuclear fuel for the TRR being one year, allowing the LEU to remain on Iranian territory, even under IAEA supervision, as Iran continued to expand its stockpile, greatly diminished the confidence-building value of the measure and introduced a level of risk unpalatable to the United States and its international partners.

With Iran’s continued insistence on simultaneity of the export of its LEU in small batches from its own territory, the remaining parties to the negotiations grew increasingly frustrated. If Iran would not reduce the size of its LEU stockpile inside the country to below that which would be required to develop a nuclear weapon, neither sufficient time nor space could be created to pursue a more comprehensive understanding. Iran’s rebuff further united the P5+1 diplomats who, while urging Iran to reconsider the original fuel swap proposal, nevertheless began discussions regarding what would ultimately become UN Security Council Resolution 1929, the sixth on Iran’s nuclear program and the fourth to impose legally binding Chapter VII sanctions.106

Months later, on May 17, 2010 (and just weeks prior to the passage of UNSCR 1929 on June 9, 2010), Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan both traveled to Tehran and announced that they had secured Iran’s agreement to ship 1200kg of its LEU stockpile out of Iran in exchange for TRR fuel under a “Joint Declaration by Iran, Turkey and Brazil.”107 Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman at the time, Ramin Mehmanparast, announced that the deal demonstrated that Iran was not pursuing nuclear weapons, “but rather peaceful nuclear technology.”108 The United States praised the diplomatic efforts of Brazil and Turkey, but senior officials noted that the proposal fell short on responding to very real concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.109 While President Obama had conferred with the Brazilian and Turkish leaders prior to their diplomatic efforts, and much of what they achieved was outlined in a letter from President Obama to Lula in very broad terms, the White House did not set a comprehensive set of conditions it would accept and was not consulted prior to the announcement in Tehran.110

The United States, France, and Russia responded to the announcement with a letter to the IAEA relaying a range of concerns with the arrangement.111 Crucially, as Burns noted in his 2019 memoir, the agreement was “too little, too late.”112 Too little as Iran’s stockpile had grown in the intervening seven months, making a 1200kg export of LEU insufficient to buy sufficient time and space for more comprehensive talks. Too late as the United States had already secured Russia and China’s support for UNSCR 1929 and Iran had already begun enriching uranium to near 20%, an issue left unaddressed by the understanding between Iran, Turkey, and Brazil. The deal appeared to some observers to be primarily a last-minute effort to delay UNSCR 1929 and new sanctions.113 According to Poneman, Einhorn observed in one interagency meeting: “The deal’s ‘sell-by’ date has expired.”114

The U.S. rejection of the understanding was perceived by some as an indication that perhaps it was not as serious about diplomacy as it claimed. Martin Malin, a nonproliferation expert and former Executive Director of the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, noted that while there was increased skepticism concerning Iran’s intentions, some observers inside and outside of Iran held a different point of view: “From the perspective of some, Iran was earnestly trying to square the circle by offering alternative constructs. The U.S. rejection of these proposals and what appeared to be relatively rapid Chinese and Russian agreement on UNSCR 1929 sanctions made the whole affair look like perhaps it was a box-checking exercise to these critics.” 115 Nevertheless, the joint declaration fell short of achieving important objectives in the eyes of the P5+1 at the time and ultimately was not a palatable alternative to what had tentatively been agreed to months prior in Geneva and Vienna.


Conclusion and Lessons Learned

Left to right: Glyn Davies, Jim Timbie (front), Newell Highsmith, Robert Einhorn, Mike Hammer, and Puneet Talwar


While the TRR fuel swap negotiations failed to result in a final understanding and were followed by years of stalemate and escalation regarding Iran’s nuclear program, they laid important groundwork for the successful diplomacy that eventually followed, setting a precedent for high-level bilateral engagement between the United States and Iran on the nuclear issue and, critically, achieving unity among the P5+1 that provided leverage vis-à-vis Iran. This unity and leverage were among the critical components in reaching the JCPOA in 2015.

When one reviews events surrounding first the negotiation and then the collapse of the 2009 TRR deal, a number of lessons emerge. Although beyond the scope of this paper, the TRR talks likely provided important lessons for Iranian officials concerning negotiations with the P5+1 regarding their country’s nuclear program. In the words of Davies, “Iranian officials undoubtedly mulled the lost opportunity for years, and as a result took more seriously the diplomatic effort that resulted in the JCPOA. I don’t believe the JCPOA would have been reached without the lessons learned from the TRR talks.” 116 In researching this paper, it became clear to the authors that U.S. policymakers learned valuable lessons regarding Iran’s nuclear decision-making and the art of negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program during the TRR talks. Indeed, some of these lessons appear to have assisted U.S. and international efforts in reaching the JCPOA. These lessons, and those gleaned since, should not be forgotten in seeking to address concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear program going forward. After all, as the U.S. intelligence community years ago assessed that Iran does not face “any insurmountable technical barriers” to developing a nuclear weapon. As such, one must evaluate whether the primary focus must turn from physical prevention to political persuasion.117 With 75-year-old technology that has become widely diffused and accessible through 21st Century computational tools, it is political will—not necessarily technological challenges—that has become the central factor in preventing countries like Japan, South Korea, Argentina, Brazil, and many others from crossing that threshold. The same is true for Iran.

Of course, we should continue to seek to constrain the technical contours of Iran’s nuclear program to mitigate risks and help ensure its exclusively peaceful nature, but at the same time we must understand Iran’s nuclear motivations—motivations that are not necessarily regime-dependent—in order to seek to persuade its leaders that their interests are best served by nuclear restraint.118 Doing so might help define the future trajectory of Iran’s nuclear program, shape how Iran pursues its national security interests, and help ensure that the complex cost-benefit analysis conducted by Iran’s leaders—based in part on geostrategic factors, threat perceptions, and the longstanding internal debate regarding not just Iran’s nuclear program but its broader place in the world—results in a decision to refrain from developing a nuclear weapon.

While reflecting an American perspective, shaped by insights provided by U.S officials involved in the negotiations, the following lessons can apply generally to nuclear negotiations with Iran, and potentially with other nations as well.


1. Diplomacy and coercive measures are more effective when Iran is presented with a united, multilateral front.

Among the most important lessons gleaned from the TRR talks was that a united, multilateral front that includes parties with significant economic and political leverage vis-à-vis Iran can significantly assist in shifting Iran’s nuclear decision-making calculus over time. According to Poneman, the TRR talks made it clear that forming a solid front among the P5+1 “was the only meaningful way to stop Iran from progressing in its nuclear program.”119 This applies both to pursuing diplomacy as well as to other coercive measures or tools of economic and political pressure meant to strengthen diplomatic efforts and/or to impose costs on Iran. In the lead-up to and during the TRR talks, the P5+1 was firmly united towards making diplomatic progress on the nuclear issue and placing the onus on Iran to compromise. Indeed, during all of his sidebar bilateral discussions with his French and Russian counterparts on the margins of the TRR negotiation, Poneman recalled emphasizing that “if this negotiation breaks down, we need the cleavage to separate Iran from the rest of us, and not divide us from one another.”120

This unity stemmed from an array of factors. Perhaps most significant was President Obama’s decision to alter the U.S. approach to the Iran nuclear issue shortly after entering office and, according to Talwar, “shift the diplomatic dynamic” between the United States and Iran. In Burns’ words:121

“The TRR talks were a reflection of President Obama’s tough-minded view that the United States should speak directly with Iran to test its willingness to engage seriously…What we failed to do throughout most of the previous [George W. Bush] administration was to disarm Iran’s argument that we were the problem because we weren’t willing to engage directly. The TRR was a pretty good trial run of that. … There was a clear demonstration effect—on the Europeans, the Chinese, the Russians—to see us directly engaging with Iran. It was a vivid demonstration that we weren’t the problem.”122

In this spirit, the cumulative impact of a number of U.S. decisions related to the TRR talks appear to have helped unify the international coalition and increase the prospects for diplomatic progress:

  • Broadly demonstrating a commitment to diplomacy and deciding to become a full participant in the P5+1 talks with Iran, without attaching pre-conditions;
  • Supporting the P5+1 position that Iran was entitled to a peaceful civilian nuclear program and, of course,
  • Introducing the TRR fuel swap proposal.123

The public revelation of Iran’s secret construction of the Fordow enrichment facility also strengthened diplomatic unity among the P5+1. Russia was particularly angered by the revelation, which helped offer a boost of determination, as Burns recounted in his 2019 memoir, “to push the Iranians hard” in Geneva in October.124 As discussed earlier in this paper, this resolve was strengthened by significant U.S. investment in its cooperation with Russia on the Iran nuclear issue against a backdrop of a broader effort by the Obama administration to “reset” relations with Moscow.125 It became apparent during the TRR talks when, following Iran’s insistence that France could not be trusted to deliver on its commitments in the fuel swap, Russia offered constructive solutions that placed the onus squarely back on Iran and demonstrated that Tehran could not divide the P5+1. Indeed, given Russia’s significant partnerships with Iran, Russian cooperation and buy-in for the U.S. approach proved to be an essential component for an effective P5+1 coalition. As Burns recalled, “If the Iranians realized they couldn’t drive a wedge between us [the United States] and the Russians, we knew we were on pretty solid ground.” 126

Moreover, the TRR talks demonstrated that presenting a strong multilateral front was not only an important lever to shift Iran’s calculus over the course of a diplomatic negotiation, but also to lay the essential political groundwork for stronger measures should diplomacy fail. Without that degree of unity—unachievable unless the United States had demonstrated a good-faith effort to negotiate a reasonable outcome—it would likely be impossible to garner sufficient leverage through political pressure, sanctions, or other coercive policy tools alone to persuade Iran to return to substantive talks and make meaningful concessions. Samore insisted that pressure remained a key component of achieving a nuclear deal with Iran in order to build “bargaining leverage to trade for nuclear constraints.”127 In his words, “Without pressure (or fear of international reaction, sanctions, military force, etc.), Iran would build nuclear weapons.” 128 Highsmith shared similar sentiments, highlighting the role of economic sanctions and Iran’s “perceived need to engage the West, including (and maybe especially) with the United States, at the very least for economic prosperity and access to technology.”129 Samore added that at the time of the TRR talks, Iran was facing increased scrutiny and tremendous international pressure regarding its nuclear program and “didn’t show much interest in the [TRR fuel swap] proposal until the United States, UK and France revealed the secret Fordow enrichment facility in late September [2009] at the G20 Summit.”130 Seeking to alleviate international political and financial pressure applied by a united, multilateral front appears to have contributed to Iran’s motivation to agree to negotiate over nuclear constraints.

Samore, however, stressed that the leverage derived from pressure must be used to achieve realistic objectives. “Iranian agreement to a complete and permanent elimination of its ‘civil’ [nuclear] fuel cycle program is not possible with economic sanctions.”131 Indeed, Iran’s motivations for pursuing its nuclear program are driven in part by threat perceptions and the need for a deterrent against what it perceives as outside threats to the regime’s stability. Therefore, pursuing a strategy that does not strike the right balance between pressure and coercion on one end and engagement and incentives on the other, could potentially heighten such threat perceptions and have counterproductive results.

P5+1 unity and broader international buy-in for the U.S. approach remained intact following the collapse of the 2009 TRR talks due in large part to international perceptions that the United States had engaged in good faith diplomatic efforts to test Iran’s seriousness.132 That international credibility was critical to pursuing a range of alternative initiatives to seek to curb Iran’s nuclear program. Such alternatives ranged from the passage of UNSCR 1929 and related sanctions in June 2010, followed by more stringent sanctions in the following years, to the negotiations leading to the successful conclusion of the JCPOA in 2015. In Burns’ judgment, “The TRR talks were a good investment in strengthening the leverage that ultimately produced the Joint Plan Of Action (JPOA) and the JCPOA.” 133 Much of this leverage was the result of forming and presenting Iran with a united, multilateral front over a sustained period of time.


2. Iran’s political culture is not monolithic and, when it comes to nuclear decision-making, its internal politics matter.

The TRR talks made clear that Iran’s internal politics can fundamentally shape the debate over and potentially the outcome of nuclear negotiations.

According to one scholar and long-time observer of Iran’s nuclear decision-making, “Iran’s nuclear program unfolded in the context of its overall politics.”134 Indeed, while Iran’s nuclear decision-making remains at best opaque to outside observers, the TRR talks made clear that Iran’s internal politics can fundamentally shape the debate over and potentially the outcome of nuclear negotiations. Khamenei has historically tended to rule on critical issues, like those related to the nuclear program, by consensus among a group of political elites, as opposed to by decree.135 These elites might all agree on Iran’s need for domestic enrichment and continued technological advancements but do not hold monolithic or static views regarding the nuclear issue or how the nuclear program should be shaped to best serve Iran’s interests. Members of the political elite within the Islamic Republic have long offered divergent views regarding how Iran should define itself both domestically and internationally, including as it relates to the nuclear program. As such, the Iranian system has come to rely on meaningful debate among political elite from competing factions and organs of government, albeit within strict limits, as part of its nuclear decision-making.136 The debate within Iran regarding its nuclear program, including its scope and end-state, reflect longstanding deliberations over a range of social, political, economic and security issues.137 Differences in views range from the tactical to the strategic and, while gradations exist, they can arguably boil down to two competing visions: an Iran defined by resistance based on defiance of many international norms vs. an Iran defined by more normalized relations with much of the world based on increased international integration. Such dynamics manifested themselves in the debate over the TRR fuel swap proposal, but the unique context of the internal political crisis following Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election in 2009 effectively flipped the script on the expected outcome of the larger debate.

Why did this flip occur? The customarily defiant Ahmadinejad and many of his traditionally hardline allies, a number of whom had opposed nuclear concessions by Iran during the administration of reformist president Khatami, supported the deal as one that would enhance Ahmadinejad’s political stature both at home and abroad in the aftermath of Iran’s 2009 post-election legitimacy crisis. In response, a number of political elites from the more pragmatic conservative, moderate, or reformist camps which otherwise would have been expected to support the TRR deal—including many who had advocated for nuclear compromise with the West in the past—ultimately opposed the deal. They preferred to deny Ahmadinejad a diplomatic victory rather than to support a deal that would have served to defuse tensions with the international community. As one scholar of Iran’s nuclear program noted, “the June 2009 elections knocked down the importance of strategic-negotiating elements in favor of political calculations by actors hostile to the Iranian president.”138 Opposition stemmed not just from Ahmadinejad’s political rivals, however, as opposition to the deal also emerged from some conservatives who feared that the modest step of the TRR fuel swap might define the trajectory of Iran’s relations with the West going forward, chipping away at the “underlying anti-Americanism” that has for so long defined the Islamic Republic. 139

U.S. negotiators involved in the TRR talks continue to appreciate and reflect on the role of Iran’s domestic politics in the fate of the TRR talks. Steven Aoki, a member of the U.S. delegation in Vienna and technical expert from the U.S. Department of Energy, reflected that it remained somewhat opaque to U.S. negotiators how Iran’s internal politics were affecting its approach to the TRR talks and “with respect to any future negotiations, it would be helpful to understand as best we can the political environment in which our counterparts operate.”140 Samore bluntly recalled that “the demise of the TRR deal in October 2009 was entirely due to Iranian domestic politics.”141 Other U.S. officials, like Talwar, continue to believe Iran’s internal politics played a role in its demise but do not believe that Iran’s decision-making was paralyzed by events related to the Green Movement or its internal politics. For Talwar, factors such as Iran’s deep distrust of the West and its overvaluation of the export of its LEU were more significant to the deal’s collapse.142

Despite some appreciation for these dynamics, Samore recalled, the reaction among some in the White House to Iran’s reneging on the TRR fuel swap “was frustration and anger...Rather than appreciating the complicated and convoluted internal politics of Iran, the view was, ‘these people are impossible to deal with.’” 143 Indeed, Samore recalled that once Iran rejected the deal, the Cabinet-level Principals’ Committee of the NSC “agreed on a strategy of increased economic pressure, which ultimately produce UNSCR 1929 in June 2010.” 144

Nevertheless, lessons of the TRR talks appear to have helped U.S. policymakers appreciate Iran’s internal political dynamics and informed subsequent U.S. tactics and strategy. Senior U.S. negotiators of the JCPOA understood the importance of considering the political landscape within Iran to increase the prospects of a deal that would serve U.S. interests and also be sustainable on the Iranian side. As former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and lead U.S. negotiator of the JCPOA, Wendy Sherman recalled regarding Iran’s internal politics in her 2019 memoir, Not for the Faint of Heart: “Whether we bought the Iranians’ political culture or not, we needed to understand the dynamics of it, and we needed a glue that would bind them to the process and keep them coming back to the table. We had to understand where they were coming from.”145

Such understanding turned out to be critical for the successful negotiation of the JCPOA. For example, the accord contained a number of symbolic, face-saving measures to help Iran sell the deal to its domestic constituencies while also meeting core U.S. objectives.146 Iran was required to convert and open up to intrusive inspection, rather than entirely dismantle, both its Arak heavy-water reactor and its Fordow facility as part of the JCPOA. Iran could claim that it was not technically closing the door on these facilities to help sell the deal at home, and the U.S. could meet its non-proliferation objectives by verifiably blocking Iran’s paths to the production of fissile material at these facilities and ensuring their exclusively peaceful nature going forward, provided the JCPOA remained in place.

At the same time, U.S. policymakers should not attempt to interfere with or directly influence Iranian politics to shape nuclear negotiations, as contemporary history has shown that such efforts are fraught with risk, complex to navigate if not counterproductive, and unlikely to serve U.S. interests in the end. As Burns wisely observed: “There’s a sensible middle ground between thinking you can play Iranian politics, which is a mistake and can be a trap. But it is equally a trap to see it as a monolith,” Burns stressed.147 Highsmith also argued that “any effort to play to Iranian internal politics may be a risky game,” highlighting that consideration of Iranian domestic politics should be at the margins of negotiating tactics, not driving U.S. objectives or strategies, which should be driven by our own national interests.Highsmith noted, it might be possible for the United States to tailor aspects of its negotiating position or rhetoric “to help our interlocutors sell the deal at home.”148

Indeed, certain U.S. rhetoric at the time of the TRR talks appeared to play some role in influencing the debate within Iran and thereby the chances of consensus among key elite concerning the fuel swap proposal. According to ElBaradei, during the TRR talks senior Iranian officials became “irate” over U.S. statements portraying Iran as capitulating under pressure in the lead-up to the Vienna negotiations and, as mentioned earlier, reportedly contributed to Iran’s decision not to send Salehi to the Vienna talks as well as the hardening of Khamenei’s position. 149 That said, it is unclear to what extent this factor played a role in Iran’s nuclear decision-making and to what extent Iran’s complaints over U.S. rhetoric more broadly were mere posturing or a means by which to shift blame for Iran’s inability to ultimately agree to the fuel swap.

In any event, U.S. rhetoric framing the TRR deal appears to have affected the internal debate regarding the TRR proposal to some extent and, while it may or may not have been a decisive factor, its interaction with other dynamics at the time may have played a role in the proposal’s demise. Historically, rhetoric that “spikes the ball” too hard regarding Iran’s relative position of weakness or its concessions typically results in Khamenei hardening his public and potentially private position.150 It also provides additional political fodder to those within Iran staunchly opposed nuclear compromise with the west. This does not mean the United States should hesitate in making its positions and redlines clear in nuclear negotiations. However, policymakers should consider the impact of certain word choices and framings on the nuclear debate within Iran and make decisions concerning rhetoric and tactics based on a careful cost-benefit analysis of what will increase the chances of securing U.S. strategic interests.

As Poneman noted, “Bragadoccio and diplomatic success with Iran don’t mix well.”151 That appears to have been the case with regards to the TRR deal and also appears to have impacted events surrounding negotiations leading to the JCPOA. Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recalled in his 2018 memoir, Every Day is Extra, regarding the drafting of a statement for an extension of the nuclear negotiations with Iran in 2014: “I also knew the Iranians well enough by that point to understand that if they felt humiliated or condescended to, they were more likely to dig in than capitulate. I still believed strongly that success was possible, but we’d have to tread carefully. Every move we made—every word we said—mattered enormously.152 Such sensitivity to and awareness of the impact of U.S. rhetoric and tactics on the nuclear debate within Iran among U.S. negotiators appears to have played an important role in helping the U.S. secure critical concessions from Iran as part of the JCPOA.

In sum, major public decisions on Iran’s nuclear program are likely to require consensus among political elites with divergent views regarding the nuclear program, across competing factions and power centers. Such consensus will often require extensive debate and is likely to be key to securing stable, sustainable solutions and long-term concessions from Iran on its nuclear program. While policymakers should steer clear of actions aimed solely at influencing this debate or its outcome, understanding the internal political landscape and, when appropriate, considering how U.S. negotiating tactics and rhetoric might influence this debate, can maximize prospects for securing diplomatic success.


3. Pursue modest “win-win” steps that can create political momentum.

While the unique domestic political circumstances within Iran that arose following its 2009 presidential election seemed to be a major factor in precluding the TRR deal from moving forward, the incremental and technical nature of the TRR proposal made it more palatable to sell as a confidence-building measure both in Tehran and Washington.

Einhorn recalled that “some in Tehran were welcoming of the TRR initiative and saw it as a way of breaking the ice and creating a more favorable climate for pursuing a more fundamental solution” between the two countries.153 Talwar also reflected that the TRR talks resulted in relatively quick progress as the goal was not to “try to solve everything in one go,” given the tremendous complexity of the relationship.154 To Aoki, from an Iranian perspective “the TRR negotiation was a relatively low-risk way to lower tensions without sacrificing core nuclear achievements. And on the U.S. side, the Obama Administration was receptive to negotiations and incremental but complex confidence building. It was more willing than its predecessor to consider agreements that could be presented as win-win, even if that entailed accepting less than its maximal objectives…. Both sought agreement to a sequenced set of actions that offered Iran tangible benefits in exchange for specified reductions in its nuclear capabilities.”155

The limited, “win-win” character of the fuel swap proposal increased the chances that each side might overcome some portion of the difficult shared history between the United States and Iran, the domestic political antibodies hostile to any bilateral rapprochement, and institutionalized barriers to engagement.


4. Overcoming mistrust requires persistence.

Even if Iran had not been mired in a domestic political crisis in 2009, success in the TRR talks would have required significant effort in overcoming the legacy of mutual distrust between Iran and the United States. The TRR talks took place relatively early in his first term, and President Obama was eager to signal to Iran in both public and private communications to its leadership that his administration was sincere in its determination to resolve the nuclear issue through diplomacy based on mutual respect. Resolving the nuclear issue could lead to broader engagement and perhaps a more constructive relationship between the United States and Iran. While Obama’s signals may have been interpreted as sincere by some Iranian officials, they did not appear to be accepted at face value by Khamenei and other elites at the time of the TRR talks, particularly amidst Iran’s 2009 legitimacy crisis—a crisis that some of Iran’s leaders suspected had been orchestrated by the United States and other foreign actors.156 In his 2018 book, Trusting Enemies, Professor Nicholas J. Wheeler offers extensive evaluation of the role of interpersonal relationships and trust during the TRR talks and claims:

“…the US fuel-swap proposal was aimed at signaling Obama’s peaceful intent while inviting Iranian leaders by way of reciprocation to signal their own peaceful nuclear intentions. However, there is no evidence that Iranian decision-makers interpreted Obama’s signal in this way.” 157

According to Wheeler, Iranian leaders were unlikely to interpret Obama’s signals accurately as they fundamentally did not trust the United States. Indeed, Poneman recalled that when he cited the humanitarian aspect of the deal, his remarks appeared to be received with great cynicism by the Iranian side.158

Moreover, as Iran tried to re-negotiate the terms of the deal following the Vienna talks, including through counteroffers to have the United States play a more central role, the rejection by the P5+1 of these counteroffers—which had been sold to and largely perceived by Iran’s domestic audience as reasonable—made major headlines within Iran. This reportedly led to an increased perception by some inside the country that President Obama “was only paying lip service to a new foreign policy approach” and, like prior U.S. presidents, could not be trusted.159 As Samore recalled in describing Khamenei’s ultimate rejection of the deal: “In part, he may have genuinely mistrusted the Americans to deliver on their part of the bargain.” 160 Some observers tied Iran’s insistence on a simultaneous exchange and attempts to have the United States serve as its primary counterpart as reflective of this genuine distrust and a test of U.S. sincerity to shift relations in a more positive direction.

The role of mistrust in Iran’s decision-making was clear during the TRR talks. While the P5+1, European Union, and the IAEA offered credible multilateral assurances that helped break various impasses during the TRR talks and allowed for progress during the negotiations, they may not have been sufficient to overcome the complicated history between Iran and the West in general, and the United States in particular, in such a short time period and a period in which Iran’s threat perceptions were heightened amidst an internal political crisis. These multilateral assurances in the TRR talks, however, comprised an investment that helped build the diplomatic foundation for constructive engagement between the P5+1, EU and Iran in the years that followed. Six years later, through exhaustive diplomacy across multiple fronts, the P5+1 finally overcame enough of the barriers of mistrust to conclude the JCPOA with the government in Tehran.


5. High-level, bilateral engagement with Iran, directly or through a trusted interlocutor, helps.

Finally, the TRR talks demonstrated the powerful impact of direct U.S.-Iran engagement as part of a larger multilateral effort. As noted above, such engagement helped enhance P5+1 unity and underscored the seriousness of U.S. efforts to fully test diplomacy among its international partners. But doing so also showed U.S. seriousness in the eyes of Iran’s decision-makers. For example, Burns’ bilateral meeting with Jalili allowed an opportunity for each side to further clarify their positions and was crucial to reaching a tentative understanding on the fuel swap proposal, even if it did not ultimately come to fruition. Poneman’s meeting with Soltanieh, in which he conveyed President Obama’s willingness to build on the opening that a successful TRR deal would create, represented a political gesture that indicated respect as a negotiating partner and signaled the prospect for an opening to a more constructive relationship between the United States and Iran.

As Mousavian argued, in the context of the TRR talks, a bilateral meeting between senior U.S. and Iranian officials had the potential to breathe “new life to the tired soul of the negotiations,” indicating the importance of such engagement to the Iranian side.161 The periodic insistence by the Ahmadinejad administration to have the United States serve as its main counterpart to the deal supports this thesis. ElBaradei also insisted that Iran’s aim in the TRR negotiations was not fundamentally a technical matter but rather a mechanism to help lead to the normalization of relations with the United States.162 Highsmith also highlighted that Iran engaged most meaningfully when the United States was at the negotiating table and noted that the TRR experience made clear that a lasting solution to the Iran nuclear issue “will not occur with the United States on the sidelines.”163 As a key player in determining Iran’s global status—a matter of keen sensitivity to leadership in Tehran—the United States can use direct engagement to gain leverage to secure concessions from Tehran and give momentum to a wider P5+1 effort (as was the case in the negotiations leading to the JCPOA).


Given the deep distrust between the United States and Iran, it is not surprising that a trusted third-party interlocutor—Mohamed ElBaradei—played a powerful role in bridging the negotiating gap in the context of the TRR talks. Iran’s senior leadership trusted ElBaradei to serve as an honest broker and mediator vis-à-vis Washington, making him a credible messenger regarding American redlines during the talks. Senior U.S. officials also viewed him as a reliable interlocutor.164 His role as a trusted intermediary helped break through negotiating impasses and increased the prospects for success in the TRR talks. As Davies noted, “Given his background, ElBaradei’s role in the talks made the deal attractive to many in the broader international community. As such, when Tehran rejected the deal, there was a sense that Iran had spurned not just the United States but also ElBaradei, which also seemed to contribute to increased unity among members of the IAEA Board of Governors to pass tough resolutions on Iran.”165 Trusted interlocutors that help facilitate high-level engagement between the United States and Iran can both enhance the prospects for diplomatic success when their efforts are embraced by both sides, and potentially strengthen the case to impose penalties on the recalcitrant party when their efforts are rejected.

* * *

While under the JCPOA Iran explicitly agreed never to seek, develop, or acquire a nuclear weapon, if it were to reverse course and make the political decision to develop one, it would not just magnify existing threats to a range of U.S. national security interests, it would pose a significant risk to the very foundations of the global nonproliferation regime that has helped prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and the horrendous destruction they can visit upon our planet.

Both the TRR talks of 2009 and the JCPOA of 2015 demonstrate that the Iranian government is prepared to come to the negotiating table and undertake meaningful restraints upon its nuclear program in exchange for commitments by others in the international community to address economic, political, and security concerns. In the absence of such an exchange, Iran will likely continue to present a serious and growing threat, not only through its nuclear advancements, but also through its ballistic missile development, support for terrorism, and destabilizing policies across the Middle East.

It would serve the interests of the United States and its allies well to halt the continued erosion of the restrictions contained within the JCPOA and take the steps necessary to re-impose verifiable restraints on Iran’s nuclear program. At the same time, and as discussed earlier, technical barriers will not ultimately determine whether Iran develops a nuclear weapon. It is a question of political will. As such, policymakers must also take a more holistic approach and consider ways in which they can shape Iran’s nuclear decision-making, and broader national security decision-making, in a manner favorable to U.S. interests.

It is the hope of the authors that the experiences gained and lessons learned in negotiations with Iran concerning its nuclear program, including the TRR talks of 2009, could prove helpful in any future negotiations to contain this potentially fundamental threat to peace and stability throughout the region and around the globe.



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2 U.S. Department of State, “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” U.S. Department of State, last modified January 16, 2017,; Yukiya Amano, “Statement by IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano,” International Atomic Energy Agency, last modified May 10, 2018,….
3 Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Atoms for Peace Speech” (speech, New York, NY, December 8, 1953), International Atomic Energy Agency,
4 Glenn Kessler and William Branigin, “U.S., Allies Moving Quickly on Sanctions Against Iran, Obama Says,” The Washington Post, February 9, 2010,….
5 William J. Broad and David E. Sanger. “U.N. Inspectors Report Evidence That Iran Itself Made Fuel That Could Be Used for A-Bombs.” The New York Times, February 25, 2004.….
6 David Cutler and Fredrik Dahl, “FACTBOX-Tehran Research Reactor,” February 15, 2012,….
7 U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Geneva, Office of the Spokesman, “Senior U.S. Official on P5+1 Talks in Geneva,” U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Geneva, October 1, 2009,
8 Mark Hibbs, “Vienna Fuel Negotiators Ignored Tehran’s Exclusion of French Role,” Nucleonics Week, October 22, 2009, Lexis Advance.
9 Mohamed ElBaradei, The Age of Deception: Nuclear Diplomacy in Treacherous Times (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2011), 294, Kindle.
10 William J. Burns, The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal (New York: Random House, 2019), 349, Kindle.
11 Burns, The Back Channel, 349.
12 Interview with Steven Aoki (member of the U.S. Delegation in Vienna and technical expert from the U.S. Department of Energy) in discussion with authors, July 4, 2019.
13 Malcolm Ritter, “AP Explains: Science of Uranium Enrichment Amid Iran Tension,” Associated Press, May 20, 2019,
14 Gary Samore (former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction) in discussion with the authors, July 30, 2019.
15 James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, “Tehran Research Reactor (TRR),” Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), last modified August 23, 2013,; David Albright and Jacqueline Shire, “Fact sheet: Iran’s production of fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor,”, February 8, 2010, last modified February 08, 2010,
16 “Argentine-Iranian Relations: A Pact with the Devil?,” The Economist, last modified January 30, 2013,
17 Tarja Cronberg, Nuclear Multilateralism and Iran: Inside EU Negotiations (London; New York, NY: Routledge, 2017), 42.
18 Burns, The Back Channel, 350.
19 ElBaradei, The Age of Deception, 294.
20 Puneet Talwar (former Special Assistant to President Obama and Senior Director for Iraq, Iran, and the Gulf States at the White House National Security Council) in discussion with the authors, August 6, 2019.
21 Richard Nephew. The Art of Sanctions: A View from the Field. Columbia University Press, 2017.
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38 “5+1 group didn’t ask Iran to suspend enrichment: Jalili,” The Tehran Times, October 4, 2009,….
39 Michael Slackman, “Some See Iran as Ready for Nuclear Deal,” The New York Times, October 14, 2009,
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41 Ali Akbar Dareini, “Iran Will Enrich Uranium Further If Talks Fail,” The Associated Press, October 10, 2009.
42 Jay Solomon, “Iran Diplomacy Shifts to U.N. Watchdog,” The Wall Street Journal (Eastern Edition), October 3, 2009, A6.
43 Kim Zetter, “Crunching Iranian Election Numbers for Evidence of Fraud,” WIRED, June 15, 2009,
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45 Scott Peterson, Scott (2010-09-21). Let the Swords Encircle Me: Iran - --A Journey Behind the Headlines (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010),. Page 5.
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49 Borzou Daragahi, “A Decade After Iran’s Green Movement, Some Lessons,” IranSource (blog), Atlantic Council, June 12, 2019,; Leela Jacinto, “Old Slogans Reemerge at Iran’s Post-Electoral Party,” France24 online, last modified June 17, 2013,….
50 Kessler, “Iranian Officials Accept Draft Agreement,” The Washington Post.
51 Daniel Poneman (former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy), in discussion with the author, interview—July 20, 2019.
52 Poneman, interview.
53 Poneman, interview.
54 Poneman, interview.
55 ElBaradei, The Age of Deception, Page 305
56 Glyn Davies (former U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA), in discussion with the authors, interview—January 15, 2020.
57 Poneman, interview.
58 Poneman, interview
59 Davies, interview
60 Poneman, interview.
61 Poneman, interview.
62 Poneman, interview.
63 Poneman, interview.
64 Poneman, interview.
65 Poneman, interview.
66 Oliver Meier, “Iran and Foreign Enrichment: A Troubled Model,” Arms Control Association, January 2006,…; “Communication Dated 1 March 2010 Received from the Resident Representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the Agency Regarding Assurance of Nuclear Fuel Supply,” International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), March 2, 2010,; Poneman, Daniel. Double Jeopardy : Combating Nuclear Terror and Climate Change. Belfer Center Studies in International Security. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2019—page 179
67 Poneman, interview.
68 Poneman, interview.
69 Poneman, interview.
70 Poneman, interview.
71 Poneman, interview.
72 The close cooperation between Russia and the United States in the TRR negotiations can be viewed in historical context; even at the height of the Cold War the two nuclear superpowers had found ways to cooperate in support of their shared interest in strategic stability and in preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons. Moreover, just three months earlier, President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had launched a U.S.–Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission, comprised of nine working groups. Poneman co-chaired the Nuclear Energy and Nuclear Security Working Group with Russia’s Rosatom Director General Sergey Kirienko.
73 Mark Fitzpatrick, “Iran: The Fragile Promise of the Fuel-Swap Plan,” Survival 52, no. 3, (2010), 67-94,
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86 Poneman, interview.
87 Poneman, interview.
88 Mark Heinrich, “Iran Ignores U.N. Nuclear Deadline,” Reuters, October 23, 2009,
89 Robert F. Worth, ‘Iran Avows Willingness to Swap Some Uranium,” The New York Times, December 12, 2009,
90 Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities, Washington, DC, November 2007.
91 Seyed Hossein Mousavian, The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: A Memoir (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2012).
92 Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Statement, statement, October 30, 2009,
93 Borzou Daragahi, “Top Iran Official Says West’s Nuclear Plan a Cover-Up for Theft,” The Los Angeles Times, October 25, 2009,….
94 Samore, interview.
95 Fitzpatrick, “Iran: The Fragile Promise of the Fuel-Swap Plan.”
96 “Iran Should Pay For Nuclear Fuel and Reject Swap Deal: Rohani,” The Tehran Times, February 21, 2010,….
97 Interview with Newell Highsmith (member of the U.S. Delegation in Vienna and former State Department legal expert) in discussion with authors, July 9, 2019.
98 “Iran Signals Readiness to Cooperate with IAEA,” France24 online, last modified October 29, 2009,….
99 Nima Gerami, “Leadership Divided?: The Domestic Politics of Iran’s Nuclear Debate,” Policy Focus 134 (February 2014),….
100 United States Institute of Peace, “Timeline: Khamenei on U.S.-Iran Talks,” The Iran Primer, June 8, 2015,….
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114 Poneman, interview.
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123 Burns, The Back Channel, 348.
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144 Samore, interview.
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147 Burns, interview.
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150 Scott Peterson, “Inside the Mind of Iran’s Khamenei,” The Christian Science Monitor, December 4, 2012,….
151 Poneman, interview.
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154 Talwar, interview.
155 Aoki, interview.
156 Mousavian, The Iranian Nuclear Crisis, Page 338; Robert Jervis, “The United States and Iran: Perceptions and Policy Traps,” in U.S.-Iran Misperceptions: A Dialogue, eds. Abbas Maleki and John Tirman (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), 15-36.
157 Wheeler, Trusting Enemies.
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160 Samore, interview.
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162 Mohamed ElBaradei (former IAEA Director General) in discussion with the author, April 19, 2019
163 Highsmith, interview.
164 Wheeler, Trusting Enemies.
165 Davies, interview.
Photos courtesy IAEA unless otherwise noted.
For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Poneman, Daniel and Sahar Nowrouzzadeh. “The Deal That Got Away: The 2009 Nuclear Fuel Swap with Iran.” Paper, January 2021.

The Authors