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Iran nuclear deal: Is Tehran toying with the world – again?

An Iranian official spoke against the tentative Iran nuclear deal Thursday. But US officials expect that dissonant voices may be heard before Tehran makes a final decision.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 22, 2009

Iran's International Atomic Energy Agency ambassador, Ali Asghar Soltaniyeh, briefs the media after a meeting on the Iranian nuclear issue in Vienna with EU, Russian and US diplomats in Vienna's UN headquarters Wednesday.

Herwig Prammer/REUTERS

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Is Iran just pretending to negotiate a deal that would ship much of its uranium abroad for enrichment? In effect, is Tehran just yanking our chain?

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That issue comes up because of the comments of Iran's deputy speaker of parliament, who on Thursday appeared to reject the uranium export plan that was reached after three days of talks between Iran and world powers in Vienna.

"The United States demanded Iran ship uranium abroad, in return for getting [nuclear] fuel back," said Mohammad Reza Bahonar, the deputy parliament speaker. "But Iran does not accept this."

The answer to this is: As yet we do not know what is going on in Iran. But the Iranian government does not speak with one voice, and US officials expect that dissonant voices may be heard before Tehran makes a final decision.

"A lot of this is negotiation posturing," says Peter Crail, a research analyst at the Arms Control Association in Washington.

Tehran may be trying to frame the uranium deal as a major concession on its part in order to get the best possible terms.

"At this point, it would be very difficult for Iran to back away from the deal altogether," Mr. Crail says.

The important players – Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – have yet to weigh in.

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said that the draft agreement remains "a very positive step."

But some US experts believe that Iran's delaying tactics could be having an effect on something else: Iran's recently revealed second uranium-enrichment facility, near the holy city of Qom.

While the US and its partners have focused on getting Tehran's agreement to ship much of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to Russia, less attention has been paid to the fact that it has now been a month since Qom's existence was made public. United Nations inspectors have yet to set foot inside the plant.

"A month may not seem like much, but it has important implications for the [International Atomic Energy Agency's] ability to properly understand the nature of the Qom facility," write Nima Gerami and James Acton, nonproliferation analysts at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in a recent article for the journal Foreign Policy.

Right now, Iran plans to let inspectors inside on Oct. 25. Given that it takes time to analyze findings such as environmental samples taken from within the Qom facility, final results are unlikely to be available prior to the next IAEA Board of Governors meeting on Nov. 23.

"By the time they are available – probably for the first board meeting next year – the current sense of urgency will have been lost," according to Messrs. Gerami and Acton.

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