FOR NOW, at least, nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West have narrowed to an issue that was not even on the agenda a month ago: Iran's possible export of most of its existing stockpile of enriched uranium to Russia and France, which would turn it into fuel for an Iranian research reactor. This is both a bad and a good development. It is bad because it diverts attention from Iran's continuing refusal to comply with U.N. resolutions ordering it to cease uranium enrichment and from its failure to accept Western proposals even for a temporary freeze. But if Iran goes through with the agreement in principle announced by the Obama administration on Oct. 1, the tangible good would be the removal from Iran of most of the known raw material it could use to make a bomb -- and a probable delay of one to two years in the West's estimates of how quickly it could produce one.
It's still unclear whether Tehran will go through with the deal in a timely fashion. According to International Atomic Energy Agency Director Mohammed ElBaradei, talks on the arrangement in Vienna got off to a "good start" Monday; other reports were less positive. The discussions are supposed to cover technical matters and conclude in a couple of days. But some reports from Iran suggest that Tehran will back away from exporting its stockpile -- a measure creatively proposed by the Obama administration after Iran asked to purchase fuel for the research reactor.
Administration officials rightly describe the uranium deal as a quick and clear test of Iran's intentions. If the export takes place by the end of this year -- the time frame fixed by the United States and its allies for progress in the nuclear negotiations -- the politically beleaguered regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will have demonstrated, at least, that it wants to lower tensions with the West and delay a full confrontation over its nuclear program. Conversely, if it reverses its position, or seeks to drag out the talks, then the administration will have a strong case for the adoption of new sanctions -- one that will put its relationship with Russia and China to the test.
An agreement could mean that the "crippling sanctions" the administration has said it would seek will not be applied soon, even if Iran continues to defy U.N. resolutions by installing new centrifuges at its existing enrichment plant and opening a new one. But as a practical matter, the prospects for success in the talks, or in winning Russian and Chinese support for tough sanctions, have been dim for some time. By proposing the uranium swap, the Obama administration may have found a way to buy some time and avoid an impasse in which it would have few options. Let's hope it works.