Negotiations over Iran's nuclear program wrapped up in Vienna on Wednesday with a draft agreement that could go a long way to assuaging international concerns over the Islamic Republic's nuclear intentions and prove a substantial vindication of President Barack Obama's engagement policy.
But since Iran sent a group of junior negotiators to the talks sponsored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), confirmation of progress is at least two days away, pending review and potential modification by senior officials in Tehran. Nuclear negotiators say that agreements reached with Iran are almost never "final," and if Tehran tries to modify the current agreement significantly it will fuel critics of President Obama who charge that Iran is merely playing for time.
The draft agreement would see Iran ship 75 percent of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) stockpile to be further enriched in Russia to a level sufficient to fuel a nuclear reactor but well below the point needed to power a nuclear bomb. If the agreement is followed, the uranium would be returned to Iran for use in a nuclear research reactor – built by the US for the Shah in 1975 – that produces medical isotopes and other civilian nuclear products.
The agreement announced by IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei comes after a five-month process that began June 5 when Iran approached Mr. ElBaradei seeking an answer to its uranium surplus, Iran's lead negotiator here Ali Asghar Soltanieh told reporters after the talks ended.
The draft agreement "helps us look to the future" and is an important part of "healing wounds… of many years," ElBaradei said here.
Nevertheless, it was a tumultuous 2-1/2 days of talks. At the start of October, Iran agreed to send its nuclear fuel to Russia to be enriched and then on to France, where it would be modified into fuel rods suitable for Iran's medical reactor. But at the start of the latest round, Iran suddenly objected to the French role and called them untrustworthy. Iran's negotiators spent much of the second day of talks avoiding their counterparts, as ElBaradei shuttled from room to room to try to bring the parties together.
The Vienna nuclear talks between Russia, Iran, the US, and France, were closely watched in Washington and elsewhere as an important test of Iran's willingness to follow through on promises made "in principle" in Geneva Oct. 1. The Iranians and ElBaradei stressed that the meeting was a "technical" one only.
Mr. Soltanieh said the proposals would need to be studied in Tehran. But a Russian diplomat speaking to the Monitor after the talks ended said that Iran agreed to "everything" in the original package brought to the table from the Oct. 1 Geneva talks.
ElBaradei made no comments on the specifics of the deal. He said "I very much hope that people see the big picture" and characterized the meeting as a step towards the eventual "normalization of relations for Iran…. I cross my fingers that we will."
Along with the draft agreement on enrichment, Iran and other powers also agreed to meet again in Geneva next week. IAEA inspectors are also set to visit Iran's recently disclosed secondary enrichment site, near the holy city of Qom on Oct. 25. These steps are in turn part of a process of greater transparency designed to ward off international sanctions aimed at Tehran as its nuclear program and missile technology continue to mature and its violations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) mount.
Soltanieh told reporters that after Iran approached the IAEA head on June 5 that ElBaradei, who will leave his post late next month, talked to the Obama administration and interlocutors in Moscow and found both sides willing to entertain new and creative approaches.
"[ElBaradei] told us that Russia and the US were ready to cooperate," Soltanieh said. US diplomats confirmed that the White House helped devise a plan to send some 4,000 pounds of Iran's low-enriched uranium to Moscow – taking the bulk of Iran's bombmaking material off the table, at least for the moment.
"We can [enrich uranium] ourselves to the 20-percent level," said Soltanieh, speaking of the requirement to enrich uranium for use in a reactor. But he said that Tehran had decided to come to the IAEA instead, an apparent acknowledgement of international concerns. He said the fuel will be used to produce isotopes for medical use in 200 hospitals in Iran.