Iran Friday backed away from approving a draft deal that would see most of its nuclear fuel shipped abroad, saying it needs more time to consider the draft proposal created by the United States and other powers eager to contain the developing Iranian nuclear program.
The draft agreement, which would allow most of Iran's stockpile of low-enriched uranium to be further processed in Russia and France to a level that could fuel a small research reactor in Tehran. It was hammered out between Iran, the US, Russia, France, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna this week. The parties agreed to respond Friday; Russia, the US, and France said "yes" early today.
But Iran said it will wait until "the middle of next week" to respond. There were other signs as well from Tehran that the government was backing away from taking the offer. Ali Asghar Soltaniyeh, Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, told state television on Friday that Iran had made its own proposals to the group in Vienna, and was waiting for a response from the US and others.
The delay suggests a lack of unity among Iranian leaders on nuclear concessions, or perhaps that Iran is simply playing for time – hoping that talks about new agreements, and not new agreements themselves, will stem a fresh round of sanctions against Tehran, something President Barack Obama has promised to push for if nuclear talks don't bear fruit by the end of the year.
Still, White House and European leaders hope sanctions won't be necessary, with the current round of talks leading to what IAEA director Mohammed ElBaradei said Friday night is a possible "new era of cooperation."
The State Department adopted a cautious tone. "We hope that they will next week provide a positive response," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters. "Obviously, we would have preferred to have had a response today. We approach this with a sense of urgency. The international community's been waiting a long time for Iran to address some of our real concerns about their intentions."
On Sunday, Mr. ElBaradei will meet with Iranian leaders as the leader of a team of IAEA inspectors who have been given permission to inspect the recently disclosed centrifuge site in the holy city of Qom.
Iran nuclear watchers express concern that the Iranian midweek response may be to ask to open new negotiations with the parties, rather than approve the draft agreement hammered out in October.
"ElBaradei is going there on Sunday. If you get an agreement on Qom, if you do this deal – there's no harm done," says David Albright of ISIS in Washington. "The danger is that ElBaradei tries to open new talks, which can lead to all kinds of tricks."
Iran's response came at about 7 p.m. on Friday in Vienna. Much of this deadline day was filled with the same kind of Tehran media-fueled roller-coaster speculation that marked the somewhat historic talks this week between Iran and the US in particular – with Iranian state TV hinting vaguely that the deal was off.
Test of good faith
France, Russia, the US, and Iran spent nearly three days this week in turgid negotiations – on a plan, asked for by Iran, to turn over most of its uranium to Russia for reprocessing and for use in the Tehran research reactor, which is used for medical isotopes.
The talks were considered by the White House as a test of good faith – something that would forestall Israeli saber-rattling and new American and European backed sanctions. But the "new era" suggested by ElBaradei, who has one more month in office, may fail if Iran does not agree to the plan.
"In the end, this [Vienna] deal doesn't get to the major issues, and if you can't solve this test, which is an easy win-win – how are you going to take up the main issue, which is enriching uranium?" asks Mr. Albright. "They [Iran] are on a trajectory leading to nuclear weapons. Whether it is six years or one year, Iran is headed that way."
American negotiators stressed that while the international media has viewed the Vienna talks as if they were between the US and Iran exclusively, "there are three nations that are willing to help Iran," as one negotiator put it.
Early on Friday, as the international community waited for Iran's response to the medical-reactor deal, Iranian state-run TV reported that an Iranian negotiator in Vienna said Iran was "interested in buying fuel for the Tehran research reactor within the framework of a clear proposal" – which appeared to be a reversion to a position taken earlier by Iran.
IAEA officials puzzled over whether the "proposal" the negotiator mentioned was one that Iran made to ElBaradei last June, or some other proposal. The Tehran TV statement also included the phrase "we are waiting for the other party's constructive and trust-building response" – though long before the statement aired, all three nations had given a fairly robust affirmative reply to the draft deal written in Vienna.
On Thursday, the deputy speaker of Iran's parliament added fuel to speculation over a thumbs down from Iran, stating that "they [the West] tell us: You give us your 3.5 percent enriched uranium, and we will give you the fuel for the Tehran reactor. It is not acceptable to us."
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said midday Friday that the response from Iran looked like it would not be favorable.
Iran and France had the most contentious relations in the Vienna talks, possibly owing to France's tough pro-sanctions position on Iran. Tehran at one point stated that Paris "did not need to be present in Vienna" – though Iran had agreed to talks that included France just a few weeks before.
The White House has taken some heat from hardliners over its attempt to engage Iran diplomatically. Administration officials and French experts alike say that the new American approach to engage Iran, while it puts everyone on an uncertain path, will build leverage for the Americans. By openly negotiating with Tehran in a multination format, the US shows the international community it is doing all it can to bring Iran inside the IAEA and Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) rules books – ahead of a push for sanctions and isolation.