By Thomas Erdbrink and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 3, 2010; A06
TEHRAN -- A long-dormant proposal to remove the bulk of Iran's enriched uranium from the Islamic republic appeared to be revived Tuesday as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran had "no problem" with a deal initially brokered by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The deal, which Iran formally rejected weeks ago, would swap low-enriched uranium for fuel for a research reactor that produces medical isotopes. "If we allow them to take it, there is no problem," Ahmadinejad said on state TV. "We sign a contract to give 3.5 percent enriched uranium and receive 20 percent enriched ones after four or five months."
U.S. officials reacted cautiously to Ahmadinejad's remarks, which came a day after France assumed the presidency of the U.N. Security Council. France, along with the United States, Britain and Germany, are pushing hard for additional Security Council sanctions against Tehran for failing to agree to talks on its nuclear ambitions; any sudden interest in diplomacy by Iran might be intended to persuade China, a skeptic of sanctions, to block them, diplomats said. U.S. officials had viewed the proposal involving the research reactor as a test of whether a broader diplomatic deal could be broached on Iran's nuclear programs.
"There is a still a deal on the table. The question is: Is he prepared to say yes," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. He noted that when Iranian diplomats met with U.S. officials in Geneva in October, "they said yes, and then they said no."
Crowley said he was "unaware of a formal response" by Iran to the International Atomic Energy Agency changing its stance. "If Mr. Ahmadinejad's comments reflect an updated Iranian position, we look forward to Iran informing the IAEA," said White House spokesman Mike Hammer.
Iran's shift in tone came as Vice President Biden escalated U.S. rhetoric against Iran after a year of outreach. Biden said Tuesday that Iran's leaders are "sowing the seeds of their own destruction" by cracking down harshly on political opponents.
Asked in an MSNBC interview whether it is time to think about regime change in Iran, Biden said that "the very people marching" in anti-government demonstrations are "thinking about regime change."
The United States has "moved in the right direction in a measured way" to impose sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, Biden said. "We're going to end up much better off than we would have if we tried to go in there and just physically changed the regime."
Meanwhile, Iran responded angrily to U.S. moves to expand land- and sea-based missile defense systems in and around the Persian Gulf to deter any Iranian attack, calling the rationale "an excuse" to widen U.S. influence in the region. Iranian officials accused the United States of creating "Iran-phobia" in the region and emphasized Iran's good relations with neighboring countries.
Ahmadinejad has made positive remarks before about the nuclear swap, which was initially supported by Iranian nuclear negotiators -- who officially report to him as head of the Supreme National Security Council. In October, after the Geneva meeting, Ahmadinejad called the negotiations "positive" and "a step forward," according to Iranian state television's Web site.
After the proposal was made public, it was severely criticized by influential lawmakers, the leading pro-government newspaper and the former top nuclear negotiator, who said the West would keep the low-enriched nuclear material to sabotage Iran's atomic progress.
In response, the Foreign Ministry asked the United States, France and Russia -- the countries involved in the deal -- for more guarantees that the enriched fuel would be delivered. Iran first said it wanted to swap the material inside Iran. Later it proposed sending a smaller amount of low-enriched uranium in batches to third countries.
After the Security Council reprimanded Iran in November, saying it had been slow to report a second nuclear enrichment site, Ahmadinejad called the initial swap idea "a lost opportunity" and demanded a trade inside Iran. "We cannot trade the prestige of the Islamic Republic and squander it," Ahmadinejad said during a TV interview broadcast on state television.
The fuel is needed to operate a 40-year-old U.S.-supplied nuclear research reactor in Tehran that produces medical isotopes crucial for diagnosis and treatment for an estimated 850,000 kidney, heart and cancer patients. Doctors, nuclear scientists and officials in Iran warn that domestic production will dry up when the research reactor runs out of fuel, perhaps as soon as this spring.
Kessler reported from Washington.