Iran Agrees To Ship Uranium To Turkey

Iran has agreed to ship most of its enriched uranium to Turkey in a nuclear fuel swap that could ease the international standoff over the country's nuclear weapons program. The agreement is almost identical to the one the U.S. has been urging Iran to accept for the past six months. It would eliminate, for now, fears about Iran having sufficient stocks of enriched uranium to produce a nuclear weapon.

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In Tehran today, the government of Iran blinked. After intense pressure from the U.S. and Europe and the threat of more economic sanctions, it accepted a nuclear deal it has resisted for some eight months. If implemented, the agreement could see Iran shipping more than half of the uranium that is enriched out of the country.

The president of Brazil and the prime minister of Turkey traveled to Tehran to negotiate the deal.

NPR's Mike Shuster has the story.

MIKE SHUSTER: The original deal proposed by the U.S. last summer was meant to entice Iran to export much of the low-enriched uranium, or LEU, it produced. The goal, the make sure Iran would never use that uranium if it were enriched to a much higher level as the key explosive ingredient in a nuclear weapon.

In exchange, the U.S., Russia, France and the International Atomic Energy Agency pledged to provide nuclear fuel for a reactor in Tehran that makes radio isotopes for treating cancer patients. Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, first accepted the deal but then opposition among conservatives and reformists in Tehran brought about a reversal in Iran's position and the deal has been all but dead until today.

After intense negotiations with the leaders of Brazil and Turkey, Iran reversed itself once again. Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, read from the agreement at a news conference in Tehran today.

Mr. MANOUCHEHR MOTTAKI (Foreign Minister, Iran): The Islamic Republic of Iran agreed to deposit 1,200 kilograms LEU in Turkey. While in Turkey, this LEU will continue to be the property of Iran. Iran and the IAEA may station observers to monitor the safekeeping of the LEU in Turkey.

SHUSTER: Once Iran's low-enriched uranium is deposited in Turkey, the plan is for Russia and France to manufacture nuclear fuel plates for the reactor in Tehran. That phase of the deal is to be completed within a year, essentially the same time period as in the original plan.

If there was a positive response from the U.S., France and Russia, Iran pledges to work out the technical details and deposit the LEU in Turkey within one month. No doubt the possibility of another round of sanctions from the U.N. Security Council put enormous pressure on Iran to make the deal.

It was with that in mind that Brazil's president, Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva, and Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, agreed to take on the risk of negotiating with Iran.

Foreign Minister Celso Amorim signed a deal for Brazil, acknowledging all the while that it is just a first step.

Mr. CELSO AMORIM (Foreign Minister, Brazil): Of course these agreements that we wrote today will not answer all the questions, but it is the precondition, in a way, for continuing the negotiations. That is what other countries have always said, that it was necessary to have this agreement, the swap agreement in order to continue the conversation.

SHUSTER: That certainly sounds like Brazil expects this deal to short circuit the U.S. campaign to impose new sanctions on Iran. Turkey's foreign minister was more direct, saying for Turkey there are now no grounds for new sanctions. Ali-Akbar Salehi, head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, said further pressure coming from the U.S. and Europe is no longer justified.

Mr. ALI-AKBAR SALEHI (Atomic Energy Organization, Iran): Now we have taken away all types of excuses that were raised and I hope that this time they will be reacting with more wisdom and providence vis-a-vis this issue, the issue that they have created.

SHUSTER: Skeptics point out that Iran has continued to turn out more low-enriched uranium since this deal was first proposed. But according to the IAEA, the pace of that production has actually slowed.

The White House released a statement from Spokesman Robert Gibbs saying the U.S. and the international community continue to have serious concerns, including questions about Iran's intention to continue producing various grades of low-enriched uranium. Nevertheless, the White House acknowledged it would be a positive step for Iran to transfer low-enriched uranium off of its soil.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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