Iran shifts on key issue in nuclear talks as deadline looms

With a deadline looming, Iranian officials appear to have shifted gears on a key issue in nuclear talks

Iran is backing off an earlier apparent agreement to allow enriched uranium to be shipped out of the country to Russia as a way to assure the material can’t be used as nuclear bomb fuel. 

Speaking on the sidelines of ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi told Iranian reporters that the country has “no plans to ship the uranium stockpile abroad at all,” Iran’s Mehr news agency reported.

He insisted that Iran had never had plans to do so, but that there were other ways to assure that the material is not diverted for weapons use, even if it remains in Iran.

Since late last year, it has been widely expected that such transfers would be one component in the agreement to restrict Iran’s nuclear program.

Araqchi’s statement comes at a moment when the bargaining has become difficult on several issues. Officials are saying that while they have reached agreement on many issues, it remains unclear if a deal can be reached.

However, Western diplomats and analysts noted Monday that there are other ways to assure Iranian compliance with any international agreements to restrict Iran’s nuclear program. The enriched uranium can be converted into forms that make it difficult to use the material for weapons, as is being done as part of the pending interim agreement that is now in effect.

The material can also simply be kept under close monitoring, said one Western official, who declined to be identified, citing the sensitivity of the subject. Iran appears to be accepting U.S. proposals for highly intrusive monitoring and inspections of its nuclear sites, a U.S. official said Sunday.

A senior State Department official said Monday that how Iran's stockpile would be dealt with "had not yet been decided in the negotiating room, even tentatively."

"There have been viable options that have been under discussion for months, including shipping out the stockpile. But resolution is still being discussed," the official said in a statement.

The handling of the stockpile hasn't been under discussion in the latest round of talks, the State Department official said.

U.S. officials noted that Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran's nuclear organization, said in several media interviews last winter that "no fuel is supposed to leave Iran."

Even so, some observers predicted that the disclosure about the shipments would be a disruption, coming only two days before six world powers and Iran are expected to wrap up a preliminary agreement to curb the Iranian nuclear program.

“Seems like a serious setback this late in the day,” Ray Takeyh, an Iran specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations said in an email.

Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, said Iran’s position on the issue “is not a deal breaker” and wasn’t really backtracking from a concession.

He said Iran has already agreed to reduce its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to a few hundred kilograms, from 8,000 kilograms. He said there are many options for neutralizing the material Iran has agreed to give up, including diluting it, oxidizing it and turning it into pellets.

It may not be too surprising that Iran is unwilling to send its material out of the country. In October, 2009, Iran suddenly backed away from a plan previously agreed to by its then-president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to send three-quarters of its enriched uranium to Russia as part of an agreement.

Iran’s abrupt move to back away from that 2009 proposal suggested that the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, viewed the idea of such shipments as a breach of Iran’s rights.

He has insisted throughout the negotiations that Iran’s sovereign rights to pursue nuclear technology should be observed, and that the country should not be treated like a pariah. He is under strong pressure from Iranian hard-liners not to allow negotiators to make too many concessions.

The disclosure comes at a time when Iran is taking a tough line on some issues in bargaining, apparently in hopes of winning concessions in the final hours.

Iranian officials have repeatedly insisted that all United Nations sanctions on Iran must be lifted at the start of any nuclear deal. U.S. officials, meanwhile, continue to insist that sanctions should be removed in phases and gradually, as Iran shows it will live up to its part of the deal.

Khamenei’s website is emphasizing his demand that sanctions be immediately removed.

It quotes the leader as saying that the lifting of sanctions should be “part and parcel of the talks, not the results of them.”

The website also quotes Salehi as saying that the United States is trying to trick Iran by proposing to have a broad preliminary deal finished this Tuesday, followed by a comprehensive deal at the end of June.

That two-stage approach is a “ploy and a trick” that the United States has used before to try to take advantage of negotiating partners, Salehi is quoted as saying.

Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times


1:25 a.m.: This article has been updated with information from a senior State Department official. 

This article was originally published at 12:57 a.m.