U.S. unveils offer to help Iran purchase medical isotopes

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The United States and other nations seeking to restrain Iran's nuclear ambitions are offering to help the Islamic republic purchase medical isotopes on the international market, administration officials said Tuesday.

The offer, officials said, is meant to persuade Iran to halt its controversial push to produce fuel for a medical research reactor. U.S. officials say Tehran's enrichment plan -- it announced this week that it is producing higher-grade enriched uranium than ever before -- is evidence that it is pursuing fuel for a bomb.

The previously undisclosed proposal came as President Obama told reporters that his administration is "developing a significant regime of sanctions" to impose on Iran. He said that action at the U.N. Security Council, which is currently stymied by China's objections to a fourth round of sanctions on Iran, "will be one aspect of that broader effort."

U.N. sanctions do not prohibit Iran from obtaining the medical isotopes on the open market, which is how many nations -- including the United States -- get them for medical purposes.

"Rather than operate a reactor, this would be a more cost-effective and efficient approach," one U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. There are a handful of key producers around the world, including Russia.

Obama, during a news conference at the White House, said Iran appeared to have spurned his offers of engagement, including a potential deal to convert some of Iran's low-enriched uranium into the fuel necessary to keep an aged research reactor producing medical isotopes for an estimated 850,000 patients.

"I think that we have bent over backwards to say to the Islamic Republic of Iran that we are willing to have a constructive conversation," he said. But, he added, "the door's still open."

Iran initially agreed in October to the fuel-swap proposal, but then for weeks sent conflicting signals about the proposed arrangement. The Americans had viewed the idea as both a confidence-building measure and an effort to remove the bulk of Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium from its soil.

"They rejected it, although one of the difficulties in dealing with Iran over the last several months is it's not always clear who's speaking on behalf of the government, and we get a lot of different mixed signals," Obama said.

Last week, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suddenly announced that Iran was again interested in the swap concept, but days later he ordered Iranian scientists to begin production of the higher-enriched uranium. The conversion is taking place at a pilot facility, and Iran lacks the technical knowledge to convert the more highly enriched uranium into the specialized fuel rods needed for the reactor.

"That indicates to us that despite their posturing that their nuclear power is only for civilian use, that they, in fact, continue to pursue a course that would lead to weaponization," Obama said.

Iran has viewed production of its own isotopes as a source of pride, which might make it reluctant to buy them from abroad. Indeed, the Obama administration's new offer might be intended mostly to placate China that it is trying every diplomatic approach.

Some analysts faulted the administration for first pursuing the swap offer, arguing that it opened the door for Iran to go after higher levels of enrichment. "They should have started with isotopes," said Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington. "Going to something sensible after you've promised something stupid and generous is a hard sell."

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