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Iran reportedly seeks to amend deal on overseas enrichment of its uranium

Tehran makes a counteroffer to U.S.-backed plan to transform Iran's uranium into use for a medical reactor. Diplomats say the deal could lead to wider talks, but some have grown impatient with Iran.

October 28, 2009|Borzou Daragahi

BEIRUT — Iran will seek to amend a proposed deal it reached with the U.S. and other major powers to ship the bulk of its nuclear material overseas, state television reported Tuesday.

Tehran will respond by Thursday to the plan for it to transfer most of its nuclear stockpile to Russia and France to be turned into fuel for an Iranian medical reactor, but its counteroffer will include "important adjustments," said Iran's state-controlled Al Alam, citing unnamed sources.

The Arabic-language television news channel often broadcasts official news or floats trial balloons before other state-controlled networks.

The U.S., Russia, France and the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, last week signed off on the proposal to transport the bulk of Iran's enriched uranium to Russia and France to be further refined and shaped into fuel plates for the medical reactor, which produces isotopes for cancer diagnoses and treatment.

Though the proposed deal would not fully allay international concerns about Iran's nuclear ambitions, it would temporarily reduce the country's stockpile and dampen fears that Tehran could suddenly break out of treaty obligations and make a quick sprint toward developing a nuclear weapon. And diplomats said the deal could also lay the groundwork for broader negotiations.

But Iran watchers said they expected Tehran to try to negotiate hard over the quantity of enriched uranium sent abroad and the shipments' timing in order to gain maximum advantage and ease hard-liners' mistrust of any deal with the West.

"My experience in dealing with a lot of these guys is they won't give up anything until they absolutely have to," said Mark Fowler, a former CIA Iran expert working as an analyst at Booz Allen Hamilton in Washington. "They will hold a very hard line. They won't give anything up, at least not upfront."

U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters Tuesday the U.S. was waiting until Iran submitted an official response to the proposal before weighing in. But at least one U.S. ally expressed impatience with Tehran.

"Iran is wasting time because it is now that we need to talk. One day it will be too late," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said on the sidelines of a meeting with European counterparts in Luxembourg, according to Agence France-Presse. "The Americans, through Mr. Obama's determination, have injected fresh vigor into this need for dialogue, but this will not last forever. Answers are needed."

According to Al Alam, "Tehran will agree with the general framework of the agreement on fuel for the Tehran research nuclear reactor, but it will also stipulate important provisos," which its source did not specify.

On Monday, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Iran was closely considering the deal, but may want to send less than the 2,650 pounds of enriched uranium it specifies, or purchase the enriched uranium required for the Tehran reactor.

Al Alam's editor for Iranian affairs, Nevid Behrouz, said Tehran's worries about the plan centered on the quantity of uranium to be shipped abroad and concern the West wouldn't return the material.

In addition to angling for a better deal, Iranian officials lack confidence in the West and the United Nations and even feel betrayed by Russia for its delays in providing fuel for a nuclear power plant in Bushehr, Fowler said.

"They truly believe that if they're not careful, they're going to step into some kind of trap. . . . They're going to be literally cheated, embarrassed or backed into a corner," he said.

Iran missed a Friday deadline to respond to the proposal but gained important leverage this week when Russia, which holds U.N. Security Council veto power, came to its defense and urged patience.

"In this month alone concrete and potentially effective solutions have been found," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Rybakov said in an interview published Monday, according to the Interfax news agency. "It can't be ruled out that the process won't continue with the same intensity. But everyone should arm themselves with as much patience as possible."

He added, "By and large, Iran is showing readiness for cooperation with both the IAEA and others."

U.S. conservatives, such as Bush administration veteran John R. Bolton, have criticized the Obama administration for backing the deal, saying doing so legitimized Iran's continued enrichment of uranium in violation of the Security Council.

Behrouz agreed. "By accepting this draft," the editor said, "the West has annulled the previous U.N. Security Council decisions on halting enrichment."

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daragahi@latimes.com

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