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U.S., Iran move closer to nuclear deal

Regional security concerns and diplomacy clear a path to a multinational agreement in which Tehran would transfer its nuclear material abroad to be processed for medical purposes.

October 22, 2009|Borzou Daragahi

BEIRUT — Deft diplomacy and regional security woes are driving Tehran and Washington toward a deal on Iran's nuclear program, experts say, illustrated by movement Wednesday in talks to transfer most of the Islamic Republic's fissile material abroad to be processed for medical uses.

For three decades, Iran and the U.S. have been locked in a frustrating diplomatic flirtation. When one felt strong enough to offer a deal, the other felt too weak to accept.

This time may ultimately prove to be no different. But Iran now is facing its greatest domestic political challenge in decades, unrest in Pakistan and Afghanistan is seeping across its borders, and the Obama administration is committed to creative diplomacy to resolve the standoff.

In talks in Vienna on Wednesday, Iranian, American, Russian and French diplomats agreed to a proposal by the U.N. nuclear monitor, the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, to transfer most of Iran's stockpile of nuclear material to Russia and France to be further processed for a Tehran reactor used for medical purposes.

The deal, which must be signed by officials in capitals by Friday, could fall apart if one party refuses or insists on eleventh-hour tinkering.

Modest in scope, the accord fails to address many of the West's suspicions about Iran's nuclear program, including its continued production of about 7 pounds of enriched uranium a day in defiance of the United Nations Security Council, the discovery of documents that purport to show Iran engaged in experiments consistent with a clandestine atomic weapons program, or the recently revealed secret enrichment facility at a Revolutionary Guard base near Qom.

It also does not address the possibility that Iran has built a secret parallel program not subject to international scrutiny.

But the proposal would buy the U.S. and its allies a year's time by reducing Iran's stockpile below the threshold necessary to produce a nuclear bomb. It also is an example of a scenario often touted by security experts and diplomats: Allow Iran to retain its coveted ability to enrich uranium while building in safeguards that the material would not be diverted to produce weapons.

The deal could serve as a framework for a broader accord on Iran's nuclear program and possible rapprochement on other issues.

"Everybody who participated at the meeting was trying to help, trying to look to the future and not to the past, trying to heal the wounds that existed for many, many years," IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei told reporters in Vienna.

"I very much hope that people see the big picture, see that this agreement could open the way for a complete normalization of relations between Iran and the international community," said ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who steps down Nov. 30 after 12 years in his post.

U.S. officials view the draft agreement as a "very positive step," said Ian Kelly, a State Department spokesman. But he added that the administration was circulating it widely within the government to make sure there were no objections.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a speech in Washington, said the U.S. was open to better relations with Iran but that the Obama administration would not wait forever.

"We are not prepared to talk just for the sake of talking," she said. "We appear to have made a constructive beginning. But that needs to be followed up by constructive actions."

U.S. attempts to reach out to Iran during the Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush administrations failed to bear fruit.

The Obama administration came into office pledging to actively pursue diplomacy with Iran. Experts say it has managed to back Tehran into a corner without making it feel threatened. Using the IAEA's mandate to help states gain access to peaceful nuclear technology as a tool to reduce Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium lets both Iran and the West walk away winners.

"I think that [President] Obama and his European allies have played their hand well in using the Qom revelation to their advantage and taking advantage of Iran's various vulnerabilities to encourage it to find a way forward," said Mark Fitzpatrick, a nonproliferation expert and former U.S. diplomat now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "The major powers have done this in a way that gives Iran a face-saving way to make some concessions."

But the medical reactor deal also implicitly legitimizes Iran's enrichment of uranium. If that is Iran's goal, it could be an ideal time for Tehran to strike a deal.

"We are a master of the enrichment technology," said Iran's envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh. "But we have decided that we will receive the fuel from the potential suppliers which are willing to do so."

The deal also represents a concession by Iran, which has not wanted to rely on outside suppliers for its nuclear material because of difficulties obtaining Russian fuel rods for its light-water nuclear power plant in Bushehr.

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