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In Iran, nuclear issue is also a medical one

From his headquarters protected by antiaircraft guns, Ghannadi overlooks Iran's only working reactor, its two brown chimneys emitting white smoke. As the head of the AEOI's research and development department, Ghannadi is prohibited from traveling abroad under the international sanctions.

"We could enrich the fuel ourselves," the British-educated scientist said in an interview. "But there would be technical problems. Also, we'd never make it on time to help our patients."

U.S. nuclear experts say Iran's main difficulty is that it cannot fabricate fuel assemblies for the research reactor. They regard Iran's fuel problems as largely self-inflicted.

Under a proposed deal brokered by the IAEA, Iran would hand over 1,200 kilos of the low-enriched uranium it has stockpiled, ostensibly for use as fuel for nuclear power plants. In return, Russia would enrich the uranium to 19.75 percent, and France would turn it into fuel assemblies for the Tehran reactor. The United States would help ensure the safe operation of the aging reactor. World powers fear that unless Iran hands over the stockpile, it could convert it someday into highly enriched uranium, which can be used as fissile material in nuclear weapons.

After initially accepting the proposal in principle Oct. 1, Iran has demanded more guarantees that the reactor fuel would be delivered. Iran also complains that the process would take more than a year -- too long, in its view.

Last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki proposed swapping small amounts of the uranium in batches rather than all at once. Iran has suggested that the trade take place on Kish Island, an Iranian tourist destination in the Persian Gulf. The Obama administration considers that proposal inconsistent with the U.N. plan.

"If Iran wants to produce those medical isotopes itself, then the best way to do that is to accept the IAEA proposal" and receive the reactor fuel, a senior Obama administration official said. As part of the deal, he noted, the parties pledged to deliver the initial assemblies in time to keep the reactor running.

Ghannadi frames the debate as a humanitarian issue, not a political one. "This is about human beings. . . . When someone is sick, we should give medicine. Give us the fuel; we will make the radiopharmacy," he said, referring to the use of radioactive pharmaceuticals in nuclear medicine.

In the past, Ghannadi said, sanctions have spurred advances in Iranian nuclear medicine, which is offered at 120 hospitals. "When the shipments of medical isotopes stopped," he said, "we were forced to make them ourselves." But for two months, doctors recalled, no patients could be treated, throwing the hospitals into turmoil.

Today, nuclear medicine patients at Tehran's Shariati Hospital sit in a small waiting room next to a dilapidated German body scanner that needs replacement.

"When they speak of human rights and Iran at the U.N., they should not forget that our patients have rights, too," said Mohsen Saghari, an internist who studied at Johns Hopkins University. "The U.S. now tries to prevent me from using in Iran what I learned in the States," he complained.

Solook, the Iranian-born patient from California, said he plans to write a letter to U.S. health officials, explaining what happened to him in Iran.

"I don't believe in these sanctions," he said, his voice frail after the kidney transplant. "They hurt normal people, not leaders. What is the use of that?"

Branigin reported from Washington. Special correspondent Kay Armin Serjoie in Tehran contributed to this report.

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