Iran Sends Mixed Messages On Nuclear Deal

Iranian Foreign Minister Mottaki i i

hide captionIranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki has suggested that Iran may be open to compromise on a deal that would send much of its enriched uranium abroad.

AFP/Getty Images
Iranian Foreign Minister Mottaki

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki has suggested that Iran may be open to compromise on a deal that would send much of its enriched uranium abroad.

AFP/Getty Images

Iran has not formally replied to a multinational plan that could defuse tensions over its nuclear program, but reports Tuesday in Iranian government-controlled news media suggest that Tehran is likely to seek changes in the deal.

A report on the state-run Arabic-language TV channel Al-Alam said the government will reply "within 48 hours" to a proposal negotiated last week with the U.S., Russia and France. It said Iran would agree to the general framework of the plan, but would insist on "important changes."

Previous reports in Iranian media have featured influential lawmakers speaking out against the deal. An editorial in a pro-government newspaper denounced the deal as "a ploy to take Iran's uranium and not give it back."

The agreement calls for Iran to ship most of its low-enriched uranium to Russia, where it would be further enriched and then sent to France to be made into nuclear fuel rods. That fuel would then be returned to Iran for use in a medical research reactor.

The idea appealed to the U.S. and other nations because it would — at least temporarily — keep Iran from having enough enriched uranium on hand to build a nuclear bomb. But the amount of time such a deal would buy would be limited, because Iran would presumably keep enriching uranium at its present rate and replace the material that it sent overseas.

Iran steadily denies that it has any ambitions to build nuclear weapons, but it asserts its right to enrich nuclear fuel for peaceful uses, such as generating electricity.

On Monday, Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, outlined two of the possible changes to the deal that his country may be seeking. He told Iran's official news agency that Iran could send part of its nuclear stockpile overseas, or keep it at home but buy the needed highly enriched fuel from foreign suppliers.

Neither of those proposals is likely to get much traction with Western negotiators, says Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a nonprofit group that seeks to reduce nuclear weapons worldwide. "Moving [the low-enriched uranium] out in small chunks wouldn't eliminate the Iranian breakout capability," Cirincione says.

"Breakout capability" is a phrase nuclear policy experts use to refer to a nation's ability to build a nuclear weapon quickly, should it decide to do so. If Iran were to send its material to Russia in phases, it still might have enough at home to fashion a bomb.

Cirincione says buying the fuel overseas isn't likely to meet the approval of international negotiators, either. "That was Iran's original negotiating position," he says. "They've been saying, either you break the sanctions by agreeing to sell fuel to Iran, or you prove our need to enrich the fuel for ourselves."

The deal currently on the table eliminated that argument by offering to provide Iran with fuel made from its own nuclear material.

Top European officials sought on Tuesday to reinforce their support for the current proposal. Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, said he saw no need for fundamental changes.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner used tougher language. He said "time is running out for the Iranians," who could face further international sanctions if they don't comply.

Kouchner said Monday that the deal was the only way to avoid an Israeli strike against Iran. He told London's Daily Telegraph that Israel "will not tolerate an Iranian bomb. We know that, all of us. So that is an additional risk."

Cirincione says there are two ways of looking at the apparently conflicting messages coming out of Tehran. "Either [the Iranian government] is a unified actor that's diabolically manipulating a master plan, or this is a manifestation of an internal political struggle."

The struggle may not have much to do with the nuclear issue, Cirincione says, but Iranian factions, like those in other nations, seeking to portray their opponents as weak on national security.

Cirincione says Iran will eventually have to agree to something close to the current proposal.

"I think they're talking tough, but they're in a weak position," he says. "They have these major factional disputes, a large portion of the population is alienated from the regime because of the fraudulent presidential elections, and the U.S. and Europe are closer on strategy than they've ever been."

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