Iran's offer on nuclear deal: genuine or diplomatic wedge?

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says Iran’s enriched uranium could be processed outside the country, a deal Iran once rejected. The US and other countries are wary of the offer as they consider new sanctions.

By , Staff writer

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    Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, second right, views part of a new domestically-built satellite booster rocket in Tehran Wednesday. Iran's ambitious space program worries Western powers because they fear the same technology used to launch satellites could also deliver warheads.
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Just as a small head of steam was building behind a Western initiative for a new round of sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, Iran has declared its openness to accepting an enriched-uranium deal it had already rejected.

US, French, and German officials responded with suspicion to Iran’s new interest in a proposal to move its stockpile of enriched uranium outside the country for further processing. The plan, originally proposed in October by the United Nation's atomic energy watchdog agency, was formally rejected by Iran last month.

But a declaration by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Tuesday that Iran is ready to accept some export scheme for its uranium was received favorably by Russia, and it prompted Chinese officials to call for further negotiations with Tehran.

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Trying to avoid sanctions

Iran’s new interest in a uranium deal left some Iran experts speculating that Tehran, seeing movement by the international community toward a new set of sanctions focused on the growing economic assets of the country’s Revolutionary Guards, is acting to head off any international consensus.

“This may be an effort to drive a wedge” in the UN Security Council, which would have to approve what would be a fourth set of international sanctions against Iran, says Daniel Brumberg, acting director of the Muslim World Initiative at the US Institute of Peace in Washington. “The Iranian regime is always playing for time, so doing that by disrupting any developing [international] consensus would be par for the course for them.”

But Mr. Brumberg, who has specialized in Iranian politics, says the chief motivation for the latest Iranian offer may also be domestic. He notes that Iran has entered what are called the annual “days of dawn” between Feb. 1 and 11, celebrating the Iranian revolution and the days between the Ayatollah Khomeini¹s return to Iran on Feb. 1, 1979, and the Shah’s exile 10 days later.

Demonstrations by the opposition

Traditionally these are days for celebrating the Islamic regime, Brumberg says, “but this year there could be large demonstrations by the opposition, and that may be making the regime nervous.” Under that scenario, the regime may be trying with its new declaration on uranium to bolster its authority at home by demonstrating its control of the nuclear controversy with the international community.

“They may be saying ‘You have to talk to us’ to the Security Council members, but their target audience for this show of authority may be at home,” Brumberg says.

President Ahmadinejad’s proposal for a uranium swap came with few specifics, so it remains unclear how close the Iranian plan comes to that of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The IAEA called for removing 70 percent of Iran’s low-enriched uranium to France and Russia, where it would be processed and returned a year later as fuel rods for a research reactor.

The idea was largely designed to reduce tensions over Iran’s nuclear program for a year of negotiations. But Ahmadinejad spoke of a plan under which the reprocessed uranium would return within four or five months.

IAEA plan could work

US officials responded to Ahmadinejad by saying there is no need for Iran to come up with a new plan, and that all it has to do is accept the IAEA plan of last October. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Wednesday at a press conference in Paris with his Chinese
counterpart that he was “perplexed and even a bit pessimistic” about Ahmadinejad’s proposal, which he interpreted as “buying time.”

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jieche said simply that China wants a consensus on the Iran nuclear issue “as soon as possible.”

With the French taking over the presidency of the UN Security Council this month, the US was hoping to move ahead on a new set of sanctions. In recent months, France has been more focused on new sanctions than the US has, given President Obama’s decision to give Iran through the end of last year to respond to his call for dialogue.

But once Obama’s deadline passed with no response, the US shifted to a posture of seeking new sanctions.

At a briefing with journalists Tuesday, State Department spokesman Phillip Crowley said that “what explains that new tone is precisely where we are in the process. As the Secretary [of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton,] said last week in London, we have to look more significantly at the pressure track because the engagement track has not yielded the results that we had hoped for.”

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