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What might derail the Iran nuclear deal?

Negotiators for President Barack Obama and other powers may have a breakthrough deal on Iran's nuclear program. But while they wait for Tehran's Friday answer, some worry that Iran won't deliver.

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

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

Herwig Prammer/REUTERS



Wednesday's draft agreement reached here to ship most of Iran's declared stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia to be reprocessed – buying all sides a year of time – now awaits what Iran's negotiators term a "thoughtful review" in Tehran.

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Iranian officials said the government would make a decision on the draft on Friday but Western negotiators are worried about backsliding, including possible attempts by Iran to send smaller amounts of nuclear material abroad than agreed to in the draft. French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said Thursday that for an agreement to stick, "The [entire amount of LEU] must leave Iran in one shipment before the end of the year." The current plan calls for Russia to enrich Iran's stockpile, and then deliver it to France for processing into the fuel rods that would run a small medical reactor in Tehran.

(For more on why Iran wants this medical reactor, click here.)

New sticking points, questions, and problems could easily emerge from Tehran, which recently admitted to another clandestine enrichment facility in the shrine city of Qom. If Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Republic's supreme leader, decides he wants to nix the idea there are many technical exceptions his negotiators could raise – ranging from the timing of the uranium shipments to the methods, or amounts, or the manner of the uranium's return for use, which Iran says it needs to fuel the medical reactor.

Put simply, there's no guarantee a deal negotiated in fits and starts this week, with few details offered, is done.

"The Obama people are right to keep this on a tight deadline," says David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. "If Iran doesn't meet the Friday deadline, that raises the question – 'Is this worth it?' They can object to sending all the LEU (low enriched uranium), or of not getting it all back at the same time. They are good at delaying."

A Western diplomat who has negotiated with Iran over its nuclear program in the past is skeptical that the concessions will be delivered precisely as contained in the draft. In his experience, Iranian negotiators have treated agreements not as final but as the launching pad for fresh negotiations. "They'll ship less uranium to Russia, or they'll break it up into smaller pieces over time, or they'll delay the start," he predicts.