Is Iran doing its customary diplomatic haggling – or preparing to slam the door on the international community?
By balking at a Friday deadline for a decision on a plan to move much of its enriched-uranium stockpile out of the country, Iran may be playing for better terms in a deal it will ultimately accept.
But by standing up the three world powers – the United States, Russia, and France – that had already accepted the deal negotiated with Iranian officials earlier this week, Iran may be unwittingly laying the groundwork for tougher international sanctions aimed at its nuclear program.
Although Iran did send some promising indications Friday, it also said it needs until the middle of next week to respond to the deal. In the plan, about three-quarters of Iran's low-enriched uranium would be shipped to Russia, and then France, for further enrichment into a form Iran could use in a Tehran research reactor.
The Obama administration supports the deal because it would substantially cut Iran's enriched-uranium stockpile – opening perhaps a year-long window of opportunity for negotiating with Iran to prevent it from building a nuclear bomb.
Tehran's play for additional time is no surprise, especially when Iran's leaders are dealing with so many opposing forces at home, some experts in US-Iranian relations say.
"It's like what you have at a rug bazaar. That's the haggling, the offering, and counteroffering that's going on right now," says Fariborz Ghadar, an Iran expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Especially with all the other things [the Iranian leaders] have going on [politically], the last thing they want are additional problems internationally."
The US said Friday that it could wait until next week for a formal response from Tehran, although it views the issue "with a sense of urgency."
"We hope that they will next week provide a positive response," said State Department spokesman Ian Kelly.
If Tehran rejects the accord – one that it originally proposed to world powers at talks in Geneva on Oct. 1 – that could provide the push that reluctant powers, like Russia and China, would need to consider approving additional economic sanctions against Iran over its nuclear ambitions.
President Obama has said he wants to see substantive progress by the end of the year toward curtailing Iran's nuclear program, or his administration would pressure partners on the United Nations Security Council to approve tougher sanctions. The revelation in September of a new nuclear site in Iran near the holy city of Qom initially appeared to shorten that timetable, but Iran's acceptance of international inspections at the site quieted some concerns.
Those inspections, to be undertaken by the International Atomic Energy Agency, are to begin this weekend.
Iranian leaders have to navigate the stiff crosswinds of dueling power bases and the fallout from the postelection civil unrest as they decide how to respond to the enriched-uranium deal, Mr. Ghadar says. But, he says, initial word out of Tehran that the government wants to buy enriched uranium for its research reactor does not mean the leadership is rejecting the deal.
The research reactor, which produces isotopes for medical uses, is running out of fuel, Ghadar notes. The Iranians, he says, may be looking for a way around the delay of perhaps 18 months that would result from Iran's own low-enriched uranium being exported abroad for further enrichment before returning to the reactor.
Russia will be key to determining how and if any enriched-uranium deal can work, Ghadar says. And right now, he says, the Russians are playing the issue skillfully to enhance their own influence.
"The Russians are playing both sides against the middle," he says. "The Russians want sanctions on Iran: They like the impact they have on helping to keep oil and gas prices up. But at the same time," he adds, "they don't want their impact [on Iran] to be so much that the Iranians cave in to the US."
More on Iran's actions Friday
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