Iran stalls nuclear program deal as clock ticks towards sanctions

Iran has 'responded' to a nuclear swap deal. But the IAEA won't say if Iran said 'yes' or 'no.' It appears Iran is making fresh demands. If so, sanctions from the US may be coming soon.

Hans Punz/AP
UN nuclear inspectors, headed by Herman Nackaerts, second left, arrive at Vienna's Schwechat airport Thursday, after visiting a previously secret Iranian uranium enrichment site.

With clocks ticking in Europe and the US on sanctions for Iran over its nuclear program, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Thursday characterized Iran's belated reply to a deal cut in Vienna last week as "cooperation, not confrontation" – even as Iran appears not to have offered a "yes" on the negotiated four-party deal to ship the bulk of its uranium to Russia for reprocessing and return for use in a medical reactor.

Instead, reports suggest Tehran's leaders want to alter a modest agreement that is seen as a test of good faith by the White House and other capitals. Reports suggest Iran wants to break up a single, bulk shipment of 2600 pounds of uranium into smaller shipments, something France and the US oppose.

Mr. Ahmadinejad also tried on Thursday to turn the West's framing of the uranium deal as a good faith test for Iran into a test of the veracity of the world powers and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that brokered the deal. Speaking to a political rally a day after a team of IAEA inspectors visited a previously undisclosed Iranian centrifuge site near the shrine city of Qom, he said "Nuclear fuel supply for the Tehran reactor is an opportunity to evaluate the honesty of the powers and the agency (IAEA)."

"We accept any hand extended to us in trust and honesty, without any plot or lie. But if that proves not to be the case, our response will be the same as we gave to [President George] Bush and his cronies," Ahmadinejad said, according to news reports from Iran.

The IAEA so far has only confirmed that Iran replied to the draft deal cut with Russia, the US, and France – not what was contained in the response. All three other powers gave an unambiguous "yes" to the Vienna deal last Friday. Iran, faced with political divisions, said it would reply this week.

"IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei has received an initial response from the Iranian authorities to his proposal to use Iran's low-enriched uranium for manufacturing fuel for the continued operation of the Tehran Research Reactor," read a press release from his office today, which added that Mr. ElBaradei "is engaged in consultations with the government of Iran as well as all relevant parties, with the hope that agreement on his proposal can be reached soon. "

David Albright of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) says it appears unlikely that Iran is going to accept the deal as written. "This was a proposal to buy time, build trust, and test Iranian intentions. Iran seems to have failed in all three areas," Mr. Albright said. "The US, allies and Russia were willing to pay for Iran to reprocess its fuel. It was a deal to take something of zero value and turn it into something of value. Iran would get something for nothing, and if reports are true, they've said no."

Iran has steadily insisted that its nuclear program falls within the IAEA's legal framework and that its program is intended only for the peaceful purpose of electricity generation and medical use. It views cooperation with the IAEA monitors as a kind of bonus for the West and says it does not have a nuclear weapons program.

Yet within a Mideast dynamic that includes Israel, which would consider an Iranian nuclear bomb an existential threat, further Iranian delay puts tough questions on the table: Should the White House and Paris cease negotiations, push for sanctions, or continue to "take stock," in the words of the administration last month?

One Iranian counter-proposal is to trade straight up its low-enriched uranium for fresh, reprocessed uranium in a series of swaps. But that would defy the logic of the deal as constructed, which envisions removing most of Iran's low-enriched uranium (LEU) from the country for a period of time while it's processed into suitable fuel for the country's aging, US-built medical reactor in Tehran. Iran currently has enough LEU to produce one nuclear bomb, if it develops the capacity to enrich it further and decides to go down that road. But if the deal is done in dribs and drabs, as Tehran seems to be demanding, the total amount of LEU in the country probably won't fall below the nuclear bomb threshold, and so will do nothing to mollify nations nervous about Iran's nuclear intentions.

Mr. Albright argues such a proposal would mean the international community buys no time in its efforts to stop Iran's current capability at enriching uranium.

"The US should continue to negotiate until December – that's what the US said it would do– then look at multilateral efforts at sanctions," Albright says.

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