GeoEye Sateliite Image/AP
This satellite image taken Sept. 26 shows a nuclear facility located 20 miles north of Qom, Iran.
This satellite image taken Sept. 26 shows a nuclear facility located 20 miles north of Qom, Iran. GeoEye Sateliite Image/AP
Iran on Friday allowed a United Nations deadline to pass without giving an official response to a proposal that would have eased international concerns about its nuclear program. A senior Iranian official said the Islamic republic will reply to the plan next week.
The announcement could mean a setback for efforts by President Obama and the U.N. to curb Iran's nuclear program and ease concerns in the West that Tehran is seeking the capability to produce a nuclear bomb.
The U.S., Russia and France have approved a plan hammered out Wednesday after intensive talks in Geneva that called for Iran to send most of its stockpile of enriched uranium abroad for further processing.
Under the tentative agreement, Iran would ship about 75 percent of its low-enriched uranium to Russia. Russian scientists would complete the enrichment process and then send the material to France, where it would be converted into fuel rods. The rods would then be sent back to Iran to fuel a small reactor that is used for cancer treatment and research.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the chief of the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency, had asked all the parties to respond to the proposal by Friday. Iranian TV quoted Ali Asghar Soltanieh, a top Iranian negotiator, as saying that Tehran will give its answer next week.
State-run TV said Tehran is waiting for a response to its own proposal to buy nuclear fuel rather than ship low-enriched uranium to Russia.
Analyst Patrick Clawson says the delay could indicate that there are strong debates about the matter inside Iran.
"It's not such a good deal for them, if they want to preserve a nuclear [weapons] option," says Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
But Clawson says it could also reflect the Iranian regime's preoccupation with its domestic political crisis, which has deflected attention from foreign policy concerns.
The U.S. and other nations worry that if the enriched uranium remains in Iran, it could be further processed until it is potent enough to be used in the creation of a nuclear weapon.
Iranian officials have consistently denied that they have any interest in obtaining a bomb, but they have repeatedly been found to be carrying out nuclear research and development that wasn't properly reported to international authorities.
Most recently, the Iranians admitted to building a secret nuclear enrichment facility near the Islamic holy city of Qom.
U.N. inspectors are scheduled to make a visit to that facility Sunday, the first chance they will have to determine how much uranium Iran might be able to enrich and whether that enriched material might have been intended for a military purpose.
Clawson points out that the Qom inspection and the plan for shipping Iran's low-enriched uranium abroad are just two parts of a "trifecta," a three-part multinational effort to deal with Iran's nuclear program.
The third part is a much more extensive set of negotiations known as the 5-Plus-1 talks, because it involves the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — France, Britain, Russia, China and the United States — plus Germany.
The group was supposed to have another set of talks before the end of October, but Clawson notes that a date for that meeting has yet to be set.