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Iran fuel deal could delay, not avert, sanctions

VIENNA (Reuters) - Iran’s nuclear fuel deal with Brazil and Turkey could delay new U.N. sanctions, but it may not be enough to avert them because Tehran vows to continue higher uranium enrichment and vital details on the plan are missing.

Under the plan, aimed at easing nuclear tensions with the West, Iran said it had agreed to transfer 1,200 kg (2,646 lb) of its low-enriched uranium to Turkey within a month in return for higher-enriched nuclear fuel for a medical research reactor.

The idea bears similarities to a months-old U.N.-backed deal with major powers to ship the uranium to Russia and France for transformation into fuel. Iran objected to the original proposal saying it could not trust the West to deliver on its promise.

“Turkey and Brazil may have succeeded in filling the trust gap, both through the modalities of the new deal as well as by virtue of who they are,” said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council.

But while the deal pleases Iran, major powers said it did not address wider international concerns about Tehran’s nuclear program. They appeared determined to push ahead with talks on a fourth round of U.N. sanctions.

The new proposal could cause delays in doing so.

“This agreement doesn’t end the controversy over Iran’s nuclear program, but it buys time for more diplomacy,” Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Center for Economics and Policy Studies in Istanbul, told Reuters.

China and Russia, major trade partners with Iran, have been reluctant to back punitive measures and could say more time is needed for talks because Iran shows willingness to negotiate.

Turkey, which like Brazil is a non-permanent U.N. Security Council member, said there was now no need for new sanctions.

Russia said it was studying the plan’s details but said questions remained and there was no comment from Beijing.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), broker to the original deal, has declined to comment on the new proposal and diplomats say it is still seeking information.

Among the missing details are who will enrich the material to higher levels, who will make the fuel assemblies and what will happen to the stock of low-enriched uranium shipped out of Iran once the fuel transfer has taken place.


Western diplomats say it is somewhat encouraging that Iran is offering a swap on foreign soil and allowing the amount of low-enriched uranium -- enough for a single bomb if purified to a high enough level -- to be shipped out in one batch, details which had led to a stalemate on the IAEA proposal.

But they said Iran was trying to give the impression that it was the fuel deal which was at the center of problems with the West, rather than its nuclear ambitions as a whole. The West fears Iran aims to build atomic arms, a charge Tehran denies.

Diplomats also said removing 1,200 kg is less valuable now because in the months of wrangling over the original IAEA deal, Iran’s low-enriched uranium stockpile has almost doubled.

“A successful nuclear swap might be a short-term solution to delay further sanctions, but it does not change the fact that there are three Security Council resolutions which call for zero (uranium) enrichment by Iran,” said analyst Nicole Stracke at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai.

Iran’s refusal to halt enrichment will be a powerful argument for sanctions, diplomats said.

Apart from enriching uranium to lower levels for a program it says is aimed at nuclear power generation, Iran also started higher uranium enrichment in February, saying it would produce fuel for the research reactor itself.

The higher enrichment is a worry for the West because it brings the work closer to the levels needed to make bomb-grade material. Iran is thought to lack the technology to make the fuel assemblies for the reactor so the move raised suspicion.

The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization told Reuters that Tehran would continue refining uranium to 20 percent purity even under the new deal.

“If they refuse to stop enriching to 20 percent and make this proposal for fuel, then why are they continuing the higher enrichment?” a Western diplomat said. “There is no other peaceful justification.”

Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl in Dubai, Parisa Hafezi in Tehran, Simon Cameron-Moore and Ibon Villelabeitia in Istanbul; editing by Myra MacDonald