Reporting from Washington and Beirut —
An agreement by Iran to send much of its nuclear fuel abroad clouded prospects for U.S.-led plans to impose further economic sanctions on Tehran over its controversial nuclear development program.
The proposal, brokered by leaders of Brazil and Turkey during an 18-hour session in Tehran and announced late Sunday, drew a reaction of cautious skepticism from the United States and its Western allies, who questioned whether it goes far enough to address longstanding concerns over the goal of the Iranian nuclear program. Iran says its effort is for civilian energy purposes only, but Western powers believe Tehran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons.
U.S., French, German and Russian officials all raised questions about the announcement, noting that Iran would still keep more than a ton of its nuclear stockpile and would continue enriching uranium in its centrifuges. But Western leaders also called for further study of the plan, saying it should not be dismissed out of hand.
The agreement appeared to sap some of the momentum for a new round of United Nations Security Council sanctions, which looked to include restrictions on Iranian government financial transactions. Officials from Turkey and Brazil said the deal removed any need for further U.N. sanctions. The two countries currently sit on the 15-member Security Council, though neither has the power to veto a sanctions resolution.
It remains to be seen whether Tehran was merely trying to avert imminent sanctions or whether the pact could form the basis of a wider accord. In making the uranium transfer abroad, Iran would drop its previous insistence that any swaps should take place on Iranian soil.
U.S. officials face a choice of rejecting the deal and appearing intransigent, or accepting it, potentially allowing Iran to defuse mounting international pressures through an indefinite delay.
The plan calls for Iran to ship 2,640 pounds of its low-enriched uranium to Turkey under the supervision of both Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, in Vienna. In return, Iran would receive 265 pounds of uranium from France and Russia within a year for use in a small nuclear reactor that produces medical isotopes to treat the ill.
The low-enriched uranium in Iran's stockpile is calculated at 3.5% pure, while the more highly enriched fuel plates are 20% pure. Experts have said uranium must be enriched to a far higher level to produce weapons.
The offer described Monday is a variation of one proposed in October by the United States and its allies as a means of slowing down Iran's nuclear enrichment operation.
But diplomats and nuclear experts on Monday quickly pointed to the unanswered questions and said the new plan falls far short, from the Western viewpoint, of the deal that was first proposed Oct. 1.
Under both deals, the same amount of low-enriched uranium would be transferred out of Iran. Last year, that quantity represented about 70% of Iran's stockpile. But since then, Iran has accumulated a substantial new quantity of uranium, so that removal of 2,640 pounds, or 1,200 kilograms, would account for only about half of the stockpile.
The deal last year failed to gain traction in part because many Iranian politicians said they suspected that the West was trying to hoodwink the Islamic Republic.
In addition, Iran embarked in February on a new program of enriching its uranium to higher levels, about 20%, making the proposal less important from the Western perspective.
The head of Iran's nuclear program, Ali Akbar Salehi, insisted in an interview with Reuters on Monday that the new proposal did not mean a halt to Iran's enrichment program.
"This agreement may not be as much of a priority for Barack Obama as it was some months ago," said Michel Makinsky, an Iran specialist at the Poitiers School of Business and Management in France. "What we have to see is whether there could be other topics related to this matter on the agenda that could give some ground for an agreement."
The White House said that the plan to ship the uranium was a "positive step," but that the continuation of the higher enrichment "is a direct violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions."
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the United States and other countries "continue to have serious concerns," and would work through the U.N. to show Iran that it must meet its international obligations "or face consequences, including sanctions."
U.S. Adm. James Stavridis, the top NATO commander, called the deal a "potentially good development" but also cautioned that there are a "million miles to go" in negotiations.
U.S. officials had been predicting that the Security Council could approve a new package of economic sanctions — its fourth set of strictures against Iran in recent years — next month. But on Monday, officials refrained from making any predictions.