Representatives from Russia, France and the United States meeting in Vienna will try to nail down details of an agreement with Iran on Monday to send most of its low-enriched uranium to Russia and France for further processing, thereby removing a possible threat to use the uranium to make a bomb.
But it is unclear if Iran is totally committed to the plan.
Iran agreed to the deal at an Oct. 1 meeting with world powers in an effort to avoid possible harsher U.N. sanctions. Iran also agreed to allow U.N. inspectors access to a previously undisclosed nuclear site.
Iran has produced low-enriched uranium — more than a ton and a half — that with further enrichment could be turned into the core ingredient for a nuclear weapon.
Although its enriched uranium is under the seal and monitoring of the International Atomic Energy Agency, there is a fear that Iran could some day break the seals, turn off the video monitoring cameras, and use it to make a bomb.
So the idea under discussion Monday in Vienna at the headquarters of the IAEA is that Iran would take most of its low-enriched uranium and send it to Russia and France for processing. The processed material would then be returned to Iran for use in a research reactor that manufactures medical radioisotopes.
Muhammad Sahimi, a professor at the University of Southern California who writes for the blog Tehran Bureau, says it's an elegant solution to the current problem of Iran's enriched uranium stockpile.
"At least as far as the enriched uranium that is under inspection and monitoring of IAEA is concerned, there is no possibility of weaponization," Sahimi says.
Gary Sick, an expert on Iran and manager of the Gulf/2000 Project Web site, calls the plan "a real step forward." But he points out that there are still many details to be worked out, and it's not yet clear whether Iran has a genuine intent to make the deal work.
"Now, if they renege on this, if they back away from it, then we find out what they really mean to do," Sick says. "But the fact that they agreed to that, at least tentatively at the first round, is a useful step in the direction that I think we should be trying to go."
Recent events in Iran may be responsible in part for this newfound willingness to strike a deal. The enormous protests sparked by the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad created a crisis of legitimacy and have put Iran's leaders on the defensive in the international arena, Sahimi says.
"So what they want to do is perhaps reach some sort of accommodation with the West so that the external pressure on them will be lower. They cannot afford to be pressured from outside while having very little legitimacy inside the country, because they cannot basically fight two important wars, one inside and one outside," he says.
The Iranian leadership was further shaken by the disclosure that it was constructing a second uranium enrichment facility — a secret one — near the city of Qum, Sick says.
The city of Natanz is the location of Iran's first and highly monitored enrichment facility. The second facility at Qum was made public last month, and inspectors from the IAEA are expected to visit it for the first time on Oct. 25.
Sick says the creation of the second uranium enrichment facility at Qum was "a fallback position" by Iran's leaders who feared that the Natanz site could be bombed by the West.
"In fact, the Iranian leadership in weak moments have actually suggested that that's what it was about," says Sick, who spoke recently in a conference call arranged by the Israel Policy Forum.
The site at Qum, Sick says, was a "Plan B, so that if Natanz is wiped out by a deep earth penetrator [bomb], you have another place to go. I personally believe that it was intended to stay covert."
Participants in the Vienna talks — especially the U.S. and Russia — are hopeful that Iran will follow through on its earlier commitment.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met last week in Moscow with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and there was some disconnect over what might happen if the current diplomatic process fails.
Clinton said that Russia and the U.S. agree on tougher steps to come next.
"We are also in agreement that if our diplomatic engagement is not successful, then we have to look at other measures to take, including sanctions to try to pressure the Iranians," Clinton said.
That is not the way Lavrov saw it.
"At this stage, all efforts should be made to support the negotiations process," Lavrov said, speaking through an interpreter. "As for the threat of sanctions and pressure, we are convinced [that they] are counterproductive now."