By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 18, 2009
A team of Obama administration officials, joined by officials from France and Russia, will begin negotiating in Vienna on Monday with Iranian diplomats over terms of an unusual deal that could remove a significant amount of Tehran's low-enriched uranium from the country.
The administration views the deal -- which would convert the uranium into fuel for a research reactor used for medical purposes -- as a test of Iranian intentions in the international impasse over the nation's nuclear program. The reactor is running short of fuel, according to Iran, and so the administration proposed that 80 percent of Iran's enriched uranium stockpile be sent to Russia for conversion into reactor fuel. France would then fashion the material into metal plates, composed of a uranium-aluminum alloy, used by this reactor.
U.S. officials argue that if Iran fails to follow through on a tentative agreement on this deal, then it will help strength the case for sanctions. But the negotiations already have highlighted splits between the United States and two of the key players -- Russia and China -- in the effort to restrain Iran's nuclear ambitions.
During a visit to Moscow last week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was rebuffed by Russian officials when she tried to discuss the need for tougher sanctions if negotiations with Iran do not progress quickly. "All efforts should be focused on supporting the negotiating process," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, with Clinton at his side. "Threats, sanctions and threats of pressure in the current situation, we are convinced, would be counterproductive."
Meanwhile, China signaled impatience with talk of new sanctions. On Thursday, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao met in Beijing with Iranian First Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi and declared that his government would seek "close coordination in international affairs" with Iran. "The Sino-Iranian relationship has witnessed rapid development, as the two countries' leaders have had frequent exchanges, and cooperation in trade and energy has widened and deepened," Wen said, according to the official New China News Agency.
Three other key players -- France, Germany and Britain -- are more willing to press for sanctions if progress is not apparent by the end of the year. A secret French Foreign Ministry strategy paper, published this month by the French weekly Bakchich Hebdo and translated by the Web site ArmsControlWonk.com, depicted France as the most eager for substantial sanctions.
There were "minor differences about the envisioned sanctions" with Germany and Britain, the paper said.
"The United States, which made an unprecedented overture to Iran in the spring, apparently does not intend to review this strategy until the end of the year. Its strategy is a bit more wait-and-see than ours." Russia and China, it added, "very clearly emphasize dialogue and do not wish to raise the idea of further sanctions."
French officials declined to comment on the document.
In a sign of American seriousness, the U.S. delegation for the talks in Vienna will be headed by Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel B. Poneman and include White House and State Department officials. The make-up of the Iranian delegation is unclear, but a Reuters report from Vienna quoted an Iranian official as saying Iran was sending relatively low-level officials rather than the head of its nuclear energy program.
Since officials announced a tentative agreement on the deal in Geneva on Oct. 1, Iran has sent a series of contradictory signals. Different Iranian officials have suggested at various times that there was no agreement; that Iran wanted to produce the fuel itself; that Iran wanted to purchase the fuel rather than convert its enriched uranium stock; and that Iran wanted to convert even more uranium. U.S. officials said they have no idea what Iran will propose in Vienna but they expect hard bargaining over timetables, payments and other issues.
The talks, to be held under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency, will last at least two days.
The French document suggested that Paris is concerned the U.S. gambit could lead to endless haggling. "We have given the United States our agreement for this operation, with conditions," it said. "In particular, it seems essential that . . . the entire 1,200 kg [2,640 pounds] of uranium leave Iran on a short deadline (Iran should be asked for an answer in principle by the end of October; the uranium should exit before the end of the year)."