By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 22, 2009
Iranian negotiators on Wednesday accepted a draft agreement that would transfer the bulk of Iran's enriched uranium stockpile out of the country, providing a major boost for the Obama administration as it seeks to engage the Islamic republic.
The deal, which must be affirmed by the government in Tehran, would require Iran to rid itself of nearly 80 percent of its reported stash, effectively delaying any attempt by its scientists to develop a nuclear weapon. It would also allow the Obama administration more time to pursue talks with Iran.
U.S. officials and other diplomats stressed that the deal would be only the first step in a difficult process to persuade Iran to suspend its uranium-enrichment activities and that suspension remains the primary goal. Nonetheless, they said Iran's willingness to accept the draft agreement would be viewed as an early test of its intentions.
For Iran, the deal would mean much-needed fuel for a research reactor that is used for medical purposes. Russia would convert Iran's enriched uranium into reactor fuel, while France would take that material and fashion it into the metal plates used for the reactor. U.S. officials conceived of the plan as a humanitarian gesture that Iran would have difficulty turning down; they also purposely included Russia, which has close ties to Tehran.
Administration officials argue that if Iran does not accept such gestures, it will be easier for them to build the case for tough sanctions and bring Russia and China, which have been skeptical of such tactics, on board.
International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei, who oversaw the negotiations in Vienna, said he wants a final answer by Friday on the draft agreement, which he has circulated among the negotiators.
"I cross my fingers that by Friday we have an okay by all the parties concerned," ElBaradei told reporters. "I very much hope that people see the big picture -- that this agreement could pave the way for a complete normalization of relations between Iran and the international community."
Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, said that the draft is "on the right track" but that it needs approval from Tehran. "We have to thoroughly study this text and also [need] further elaboration in capitals," Soltanieh told reporters.
Iran has enough low-enriched uranium, in theory, to produce one nuclear weapon. If it agrees to the deal, it would be nine to 12 months before the country could once again have enough uranium to be able to take the risky step of enriching it to weapons grade, according to most estimates.
The transfer of the material, combined with last month's disclosure of a secret enrichment site in Iran, would be "a significant setback to Iran's nuclear weapons activities," said David Albright, a former weapons inspector who is president of the Institute for Science and International Security.
"The solution is suspension, and this is a step toward that," Albright said, adding that the year gained for diplomacy under this deal would be "plenty of time" to achieve that goal.
Keeping up the pressure on Iran, a team of IAEA inspectors is due to visit the newly disclosed facility in the city of Qom on Sunday; diplomats from major powers will meet with Iranian officials in Geneva this month to press for substantive talks on Iran's nuclear program.
Iran had tentatively agreed to the reactor deal at a meeting in Geneva on Oct. 1. This week's meetings were intended to reach a final agreement on technical issues, such as timing and payment for the transaction.
Many of the details remain shrouded in secrecy, but a French diplomat said that the document is "not that far from what" the United States and its allies were seeking -- for the material to be transferred by the end of the year, for the material shipped to make up a significant part of Iran's stockpile and for Tehran to transfer all uranium at once, rather than in batches. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.
Obama administration officials on Wednesday would not comment on the talks.
Up until Wednesday, the talks teetered between stalemate and collapse. Iranian officials, perhaps attempting to sow division among the parties, refused to meet with negotiators from France, saying it had reneged on a previous nuclear agreement. Much of Tuesday's negotiations consisted of bilateral sessions, including a direct meeting between the U.S. and Iranian teams.
The U.S. delegation was led by Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel B. Poneman, making the talks the highest-level negotiations between the two countries since the Iranian revolution three decades ago.
France is one of two countries with the technical expertise to fabricate the metal plates for the reactor -- the other is Argentina -- but under an apparent face-saving compromise, Iran will contract with Russia, which, in turn, will subcontract work to France, diplomats said.
The French diplomat said the difficulties were typical of any dealings with Iran. "They like to bargain," even if they are prepared to say yes, he said. "It is just the way they do it."