Iran offers nuke fuel deal
By Laura Rozen | Politico | January 10, 2010 07:57 PM EST
There are signs that negotiations with Iran over a nuclear fuel swap have resumed despite the expiration of the end-of-year deadline for a deal set by President Barack Obama.
While the Obama administration has stepped up talk of expanding sanctions on the regime’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, Iranian news reports and U.S. official sources say that Iran has recently returned a formal counter offer to swap low enriched uranium, or LEU, in exchange for nuclear fuel cells produced in the West.
The proposal comes as Iranian news reports say the foreign ministry has announced the halting of uranium enrichment for two months as a good-will gesture. Outside observers have not confirmed that claim.
A U.S. nonproliferation hand confirmed Sunday that Iran had offered a formal response in late December or early January. While the Iranian fuel-swap response was said to have been conveyed by the highest levels of the Iranian government, U.S. officials contacted Sunday gave no public indication that they have any interest in the counter-offer.
“The Iranians have been saying different things for weeks, but what matters is whether they will accept the IAEA’s proposed TRR deal, which they agreed to in principle on October 1 but then walked away from,” an administration official said. “They know what they need to do to satisfy the international communities concerns and to date they have not done so.”
The Tehran Research Reactor proposal, or TRR, calls on Iran to immediately send 1,200 kg of its LEU to Russia, and France would in return supply Iran with nuclear fuel cells for medical use. The plan would have left Iran without enough fissile material to enrich for use in a nuclear weapon, putting time back on the clock for international negotiations on the nation’s nuclear program.
Iran’s counter-offer also proposes sending the 1,200 kg abroad – probably to Turkey – but in batches, starting with a first shipment of 400 kg. The offer seems to establish Iran’s willingness to export the LEU out of the country, which would satisfy a key Western condition.
“My understanding is that they [U.S. officials] have not given up on the TRR deal,” one Washington Iran hand said on condition of anonymity Sunday. “They need it. So if there was a chance of salvaging something …. They still want to get a deal.”
“As long as under no situation over the next year there is enough LEU to produce a bomb, whether Iran ships out the fuel in one, two or three batches, is just a logistical issue,” he said.
NSC nuclear czar Gary Samore and his shop and the U.S. mission to the IAEA in Vienna would be best placed to handle talks about a deal, it was suggested.
One source told POLITICO that an agreement between Iran and the “P5+1” – as the group composed of China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the U.S. is known – could be announced in “the very near future.”
While Iranian negotiators tentatively approved the TRR deal in October, the proposal came under fire in the Iranian parliament, and Iran hadn’t until now formally replied to the offer.
The closed nature of Iran’s nuclear program and the political upheaval there since the disputed June elections have made it difficult to interpret the nature of that silence, which could be a delaying device, a failure to achieve consensus with the government, or an attempt to win domestic political points by holding out on a deal until after the deadline had passed.
The U.S., for its part, has been working to balance a level of support for political dissidents in Iran with its negotiations with the government on its nuclear program.
Buried deep in Iranian news reports last week was a quote attributed to Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast, seeming to indicate that Iran has stopped enriching uranium at all for two months as a good will gesture:
“On the request of certain impartial countries who asked Iran not to enrich uranium for two months in order to give the West some time to respond, [Mehmanparasat] said, ‘To show our goodwill to the international community, we agreed with this request, and one month has passed since that time and one month is left,’” the Tehran Times reported last Monday. “’If the other side responds to Iran’s request in the remaining time, we will start the work. Otherwise, we will make the necessary decision.’”
Nonproliferation experts contacted Sunday said they were not aware of a halt to Iran’s uranium enrichment.
In its analysis of the latest International Atomic Energy Agency report, however, the nonproliferation group ISIS noted that Iran was holding its enrichment rate steady and was not using all of the centrifuges at its Natanz enrichment facility. But it wasn’t clear if technical problems or a political decision or something else accounted for the unused centrifuges.
“There’s a lot more uncertainty now about whether the slow-down in the operation of centrifuges has its origins in technical difficulties, the change in leadership of the Iranian nuclear program, or an Iranian decision to deliberately slow the program down in order to give diplomatic solution a chance to work,” ISIS’s Jacqueline Shire told POLITICO Sunday.
The administration official did not say whether the U.S. had indications that Iran had halted or drastically slowed down its uranium enrichment.
The Iranian proposal to send the LEU to Turkey, a Muslim nation that’s been increasing its economic ties to Iran, could help set the stage for any agreement.
“I believe that Turkey can be an important player in trying to move Iran” away from what the U.S. and other nations suspect is a nuclear weapons program, President Obama said after meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House in December.
© 2009 Capitol News Company, LLC
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