Iran's ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, speaks to the media Oct. 21 in Vienna, Austria, after talks between Iran and the United States, Russia and France over Iran's nuclear program. Iran agreed to a draft deal that would have it ship most of its enriched uranium to Russia and France. Now, Iran is asking for changes to the deal.
Iran's ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, speaks to the media Oct. 21 in Vienna, Austria, after talks between Iran and the United States, Russia and France over Iran's nuclear program. Iran agreed to a draft deal that would have it ship most of its enriched uranium to Russia and France. Now, Iran is asking for changes to the deal. Hans Punz/AP
Iran has apparently rejected a nuclear deal with the United States, Russia and France that it initially agreed to just a week ago. The deal would have Iran send most of its low-enriched uranium out of the country for processing into reactor fuel.
Late Friday, Iran's official news agency reported that Iran is ready for more talks on the issue.
Iran is saying it wants another arrangement, but Iran's leaders insist that they are not reneging on the deal. The United States and Europe aren't so sure.
It was a surprise when Iran accepted the deal initially. Under the scheme — which was proposed by the Obama administration — Iran would have shipped more than a ton of its low-enriched uranium to Russia and France. That would amount to 80 percent of the low-enriched uranium Iran has produced, a stockpile it could use, if it decided to, to make enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb.
In the deal, Russia and France would enrich and process the uranium further, and it would be returned to Iran for use in a research reactor that manufactures radioisotopes for medical use.
Although the deal wouldn't prohibit Iran from making more low-enriched uranium, it would certainly take more time — probably a year — for Iran to replenish its stockpile, thus putting off for some time this particular route to nuclear weapons.
On Thursday, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seemed to praise the deal.
"These nations were telling us to close everything down before," Ahmadinejad said from the city of Mashhad in northeast Iran. "Now they have expressed willingness to cooperate over fuel supply, technological improvement, building power plants and nuclear reactors. From a confrontational position, they have reached a cooperation position."
At the same time, Iran has delayed providing a clear response to the International Atomic Energy Agency. When an answer did come from Tehran on Thursday, it was verbal, not written.
Apparently Iran wants to change the provisions of the deal. It wants Russia and France to provide new reactor fuel first. Only then would Iran ship out its low-enriched uranium, in small batches rather than all at once, which was a key provision of the original agreement.
Iran's representative at the IAEA's headquarters in Vienna, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, described these details as purely technical.
"Our technical and economic concerns regarding the way the fuel will be provided for Tehran's research reactor must be taken into account," Soltanieh said. "I have to make sure that such concerns are addressed."
The U.S., the European Union and Russia are all part of the deal. The Europeans have reacted with the most exasperation. Some diplomats have described it as "the same old tricks." The French Foreign Ministry called on Iran to provide a formal, positive response without delay.
During a visit to Pakistan on Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cautioned patience.
"I'm going to let this process play out," Clinton said on CNN. "But clearly we are working to determine what exactly they are willing to do, whether this was an initial response that is an end response, or whether it's the beginning of getting to where we expect them to end up."
The director of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, is in the middle of the negotiations. He made a private visit to Washington a few days ago. Earlier this month, he met with Ahmadinejad in Tehran. ElBaradei came away convinced that at least some in the Iranian leadership want to see improvement in relations with the U.S. and Europe.
"They want to engage. They want to regulate the entire relationship, particularly the animosity [with the U.S.] that spans over 50 years," ElBaradei said during an interview with the French newsweekly L'Express. "So [Ahmadinejad] is not just interested in one particular piece of the puzzle, but he really wants to [look for a way] to regulate an entire relationship with the West and the rest of the international community."