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Hopeful signs emerge from talks with Iran

Tehran is said to agree to inspection of its new nuclear plant and to sending uranium to Russia for enrichment.

October 02, 2009|Paul Richter

GENEVA — The United States and other world powers said they made progress Thursday in high-level talks with Iran, taking fragile but potentially significant steps toward resolving the international showdown over Tehran's nuclear program.

Iran, they say, agreed to admit international inspectors within weeks to a uranium enrichment plant near the holy city of Qom, whose existence was revealed by President Obama last week.

And this weekend, the top nuclear official for the United Nations will visit Iran to discuss a tentative agreement to send low-enriched uranium from Tehran to Russia to be processed for medical use and returned. Such use would sharply reduce Iran's nuclear stockpile, slowing its ability to amass the materials needed to produce a nuclear weapon.

The meeting, held in an elegant 18th century villa, brought together officials from the U.S., China, Russia, Britain, France, Germany and Iran for the first substantive talks in more than a year, and will be followed by a wave of diplomatic activity in coming weeks, including another high-level gathering this month and a session of international technical experts on the medical-use program.

The Iranians did not agree to one of the most important proposals, a European plan to halt Iran's uranium enrichment activity in return for a corresponding halt in the imposition of sanctions.

Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, told reporters that the Iranians gave only a partial answer when asked about the idea, which Western powers have hoped could be a way into negotiations on the nuclear program.

The U.S. and its allies believe Iran is aiming to build nuclear weaponry. Tehran says its program is designed solely for civilian energy purposes.

Despite the tentative agreements and the plans for inspections and follow-up gatherings, U.S. officials and allied officials remained cautious, describing the outcome as positive but the progress as fragile, and expressing concern that Iran may not make good on its promises.

Yet, they insisted that the session provided important progress at a critical moment, coming at a time when expectations were low.

Obama termed the talks a "promising beginning," while warning that if Iran's intention was merely to delay, the United States would quickly move to seek strengthened international economic sanctions.

"If Iran does not take concrete steps, we are not prepared to talk indefinitely," he said. "Pledges of cooperation must be fulfilled."

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said at the United Nations that the talks were "constructive," and that Iran would be willing to take part in a "summit," meaning a gathering involving heads of state or government.

Iran's leaders did not explain why they agreed to the pledges outlined Thursday. However, they have been under intensifying pressure -- even from traditional defenders such as Russia -- since the revelations last week of the uranium-enrichment site under construction near Qom.

The disclosure of the secret plant sparked an international outcry and came in the wake of criticism of the Islamic Republic's handling of its June presidential election, marred by allegations of vote fraud and followed by a brutal crackdown against street protests.

For the Iranians, the proposal on medical isotopes is likely to be popular at home. Iran's 40-year-old research reactor is running out of atomic fuel, and the regime has asked the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, for help in finding a way to replenish it.

The proposal, to which Iran was said to have agreed in principle, also is a winner from the perspective of the six powers. That's because it would use more than half of Iran's current stock of low-enriched uranium, said a U.S. official who described the talks on condition of anonymity in keeping with diplomatic protocol.

Low-concentration uranium, if enriched to a much higher grade, can be used in nuclear bombs. Thus the program, while not halting Iran's ability to enrich uranium, would reduce the stockpile from which it could generate the materials to develop a weapon.

"Some significant time was bought," a U.S. official said.

The agreement, which would involve the cooperation of France, Russia and the United States, calls for the Iranian uranium to be sent outside the country for further enrichment, to a concentration of 19.75%, far higher than the material's current 3% concentration but much less than required for a nuclear weapon, about 90%.

It would then be returned to Iran, in a process that would be supervised by international inspectors.

The gathering near Geneva produced a rare one-on-one meeting between a high-level Iranian official and a senior U.S. official. Undersecretary of State William J. Burns met for 45 minutes with Tehran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, on the sidelines of the meeting. The U.S. and Iran do not have diplomatic relations and rarely interact directly.

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