GeoEye Sateliite Image/AP
This satellite image taken Sept. 26 shows a nuclear facility located 20 miles north of Qum, Iran.
This satellite image taken Sept. 26 shows a nuclear facility located 20 miles north of Qum, Iran. GeoEye Sateliite Image/AP
Talks on Iran's nuclear program may have produced a deal that could ease Western fears that the Islamic Republic is out to create a nuclear bomb.
The agreement could be the key to resolving the long-running dispute over Iran's nuclear program after years of international sanctions and inspections intended to limit Tehran's ability to build an atomic weapon.
But skepticism remains in the West about whether Tehran is really willing to temporarily turn over 75 percent of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to other countries for processing. And some analysts speculate that this latest maneuvering is another attempt by Iran to buy time while it continues to build its secretive nuclear program.
The U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency wants an answer from Iran by Friday.
The negotiations have represented the closest diplomatic contacts between the U.S. and Iran in almost 30 years. President Obama has staked this direct diplomatic engagement on winning concessions from Tehran.
"We appear to have made a constructive beginning," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday in Washington. "But that needs to be followed up by constructive actions."
The tentative agreement, reached Wednesday after three days of intense talks in Vienna among negotiators for Iran, the U.S., Russia and France, would call for Iran to send most of its low-enriched uranium to be processed in France and Russia.
An Opening For New Relations?
The director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, said the agreement "could open the way for a complete normalization of relations between Iran and the international community."
If it is approved, the plan could relieve Western concerns by temporarily removing most of Iran's declared nuclear material from the country, theoretically preventing that material from being used in the development of a weapon.
Iran has insisted that it has no desire for nuclear weapons, and that its uranium-enrichment program is intended only to produce fuel for peaceful uses.
But Tehran has concealed key parts of its program from international monitors in the past, raising fears that it is secretly attempting to join the club of nuclear-armed nations. A uranium-enrichment plant under construction near the holy city of Qom was only recently disclosed.
Although Iran's chief delegate said the draft agreement was "on the right track," he stressed that it still needed the approval of senior officials in Tehran. He said the deal needed thorough study, which could mean that much more time will pass before the dispute over Iran's enriched uranium is resolved.
ElBaradei gave few details of the draft agreement, but diplomats involved with the talks say it is close to an original proposal drawn up by the IAEA at an earlier meeting in Geneva. But after that Oct. 1 meeting, Iranian diplomats and statements in Iran's state-run media cast doubts on whether Iran was willing to go through with the deal.
That plan called for Iran to send to Russia most of the uranium it has enriched so far. After being further enriched in Russia, the material would be sent to France, where it would be converted into fuel rods to be used in a small Iranian reactor that's intended for cancer care and research.
ElBaradei called the deal "a balanced approach to how to move forward."
Balance Is The Key Question
Analyst William Tobey says that balance is the big question. Tobey, a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, says the initial version of the agreement made significant concessions to Iran and that those concessions should be balanced by actions on Iran's part.
Tobey says the main disadvantages to the agreement are that world powers seem to be acquiescing to Iran's enrichment program and the existence of material that was produced in defiance of international resolutions.
The advantages to the deal are that it could serve as a model for how to deal with Iran's enriched nuclear material and leave Iran, at least temporarily, without enough enriched uranium on hand to make a bomb, Tobey says.
Timing is a key question, and it is one that ElBaradei and the other negotiators did not address after Wednesday's meeting in Vienna.
Western nations want all the enriched uranium in the deal to be sent to Russia at one time, not in phases. Experts believe that if Iran keeps part of the stockpile on hand, it would be easier to reach the amount needed for a bomb, should Tehran decide to produce one.
Paul Pillar, a former senior U.S. intelligence officer, told NPR's Eric Westervelt that "timing will be very important to each of the countries involved, not least of which is Israel, which is watching this very closely."
Israel regards itself as a prime target of any potential Iranian nuclear attack, and based on Iran's present stockpile of nuclear material, Israeli officials have estimated that it could produce a nuclear weapon in the next five years.
Israeli officials have threatened in the past to attack Iran to stop its nuclear program.
ElBaradei told reporters in Vienna that he hopes for approval from all the countries involved by Friday.