Iran Makes Counteroffer On Nuclear Deal

U.N. nuclear officials i i

IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei (left) talks with staff members last week before a meeting on Iran's nuclear program. ElBaradei is now weighing Iran's response to the IAEA proposal on its nuclear fuel. Samuel Kubani/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Samuel Kubani/AFP/Getty Images
U.N. nuclear officials

IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei (left) talks with staff members last week before a meeting on Iran's nuclear program. ElBaradei is now weighing Iran's response to the IAEA proposal on its nuclear fuel.

Samuel Kubani/AFP/Getty Images

The head of the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency is reviewing Iran's response to a proposal that was designed to ease Western concerns about Tehran's nuclear program. But it appears that Iran's answer is not what the U.S. and other major powers were hoping for.

The International Atomic Energy Agency issued a statement Thursday saying that Iran had offered an "initial response" on a plan for Tehran to ship much of its enriched uranium abroad for processing. The IAEA's wording suggests that Iran was seeking further negotiations on the subject.

IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei is consulting "with the government of Iran as well as all relevant parties, with the hope that agreement on his proposal can be reached soon," the statement said.

The details of Iran's answer haven't officially been made public, but reports in Iran's state-controlled news media suggest that it contains conditions that would make it unacceptable to the West.

The proposal, presented by the IAEA in early October, called for Iran to ship most of its low-enriched uranium to Russia for further processing. Russia would then send the material to France, where it would be converted into fuel rods for use in a medical research reactor in Iran.

The advantage of this proposal, from a Western point of view, is that it would temporarily remove most of Iran's stockpile of nuclear fuel, most likely leaving Tehran incapable of building a nuclear bomb, if it chose to do so.

Iran insists that it has no interest in producing nuclear weapons, but it asserts the right to develop nuclear facilities for peaceful purposes.

An Unacceptable Answer?

An Iranian state-run television report said the latest Iranian proposal calls for sending the nuclear material to Russia in stages, rather than in one large consignment. That is unlikely to fly with the IAEA, since Iran would still presumably have enough material on hand at any one time to make a bomb.

The report also said that Iran wants to buy additional nuclear fuel from abroad, something that is currently banned by U.N. sanctions. Iran's government has argued that, since the international community has refused to provide it with nuclear fuel, it is justified in producing its own.

The U.N.'s original proposal would have nullified that argument by taking Iran's own nuclear material, further enriching it, and converting it into a safe form before returning it to Iran. Iran would have gotten its nuclear fuel without doing its own enrichment or acquiring more fuel from aboard.

If the Iranian news reports are correct, Tehran appears to have rejected that path.

The U.S. has said it will seek further international sanctions against Iran if it doesn't stop expanding its effort to produce nuclear fuel. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has threatened "crippling sanctions" against Iranian trade, but it is unlikely that powerful U.N. members such as Russia and China will go along.

The French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, recently suggested an even more dire possibility if the current talks fail. He said that Israel might be tempted to interrupt Iran's nuclear program with a military strike on the Islamic Republic's enrichment plants.

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