GENEVA (Reuters) - Iran has agreed ‘in principle’ to a deal that would move most of its enriched uranium out of the country. Western officials say this would ease tensions in the Middle East caused by fears Tehran wants a nuclear weapon.
The agreement was announced by European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana after a meeting in Geneva of senior officials from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili.
Following are details about what Iran has agreed to based on comments on from Western officials after the Geneva talks.
Iranian officials have not yet provided in-depth commentary on the deal, nor have they confirmed that they are definitely prepared to go through with it.
Iran has a nuclear research reactor in Tehran that was built before the 1979 Islamic revolution and produces medical isotopes. Several months ago Iran told the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, that the fuel supply was running low and that it would like to replace it.
But with Iran under U.N. sanctions for refusing to halt its uranium enrichment program, purchasing nuclear fuel for the reactor would be difficult. The United States and Russia proposed to the IAEA that Iran’s stocks of low enriched uranium, which it has been building up for several years, be used to produce the fuel but that the further enrichment of the uranium to a higher level of purity be done by a third country.
The IAEA presented the proposal to Iran, which agreed to it ‘in principle’ during Thursday’s talks with the six powers, Solana and other officials said.
If implemented, around 1.2 metric tons of uranium enriched to a level of around 3.5 percent would be shipped to Russia and enriched further to a purity level of 19.75 percent. This is far below the level needed for a weapon, which would require a purity of around 90 percent of the uranium atom needed for a nuclear explosion.
Iran’s low enriched uranium stocks that it has produced at its Natanz plant over the last three years total around 1.5 metric tons, so most of Iran’s enriched uranium would be transferred to Russia.
Once enriched further in Russia, the uranium would be sent to France, where it would be placed into fuel assemblies so that it could be used in the reactor.
Several diplomats said the process could take up to a year before the fuel would be returned to Iran and placed into the research reactor, where it would be kept under strict IAEA safeguards so that nothing could be siphoned off for use in a covert weapons program.
According to U.S. and other Western officials, this plan would produce several key benefits. It would be a ‘confidence building’ gesture that would show that Iran is willing to let its uranium stocks out of the country and be enriched elsewhere.
A senior U.S. official said that Iran’s continued enrichment of uranium has been a source of tension in the Middle East and elsewhere, because many countries fear Iran has a secret nuclear weapons program. Tehran denies this and says its nuclear program will only produce electricity, not weapons.
If Iran has a secret weapons program, reducing Iran’s enriched uranium stocks to nearly zero is good from a security point of view, because it would have to begin rebuilding its stocks.
It would be beneficial for Iran because it would gain fuel for a medical nuclear facility that Western officials say is not considered a proliferation risk.
On October 18 there will be a meeting in Vienna led by IAEA experts to work out the details. If the deal is implemented, it would have to happen over the next year and a half, because that is when the current fuel supply, which Iran purchased from Argentina in the early 1990s, will run out.
Western officials said that it was unclear if the U.N. Security Council or its sanctions committee that oversees the restrictions on nuclear trade with Tehran would have to approve the deal first.
The main risk, Western officials say, is that Iran will back out of the agreement. Several diplomats close to Thursday’s talks expressed skepticism about whether Iran would follow through on the low-enriched uranium agreement or other promises it made in Geneva.
They said that Iran has made many pledges about its nuclear program in the past that it has failed to keep.
Some Western officials said this agreement was as test case and an interim measure, not a model for any future deals with Iran.
However, others say it is the type of compromise that could resolve the standoff over Tehran’s nuclear program.
The Iranian government has repeatedly said it wants to have its own domestic enrichment program and has rejected offers that Russia or other countries produce enriched uranium fuel for Iranian civilian nuclear reactors, even though analysts say it would be much cheaper for Tehran to buy nuclear fuel from Russia than to enrich it at home.
Editing by Janet McBride