Iran agreed to fully freeze its uranium enrichment program Sunday in a breakthrough deal with the European Union to avoid possible U.N. Security Council sanctions.
A Vienna-based diplomat confirmed that the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency received a letter from Iran on Sunday evening that contained a “commitment to full suspension of Iran’s uranium enrichment program.”
No duration for the suspension was mentioned. Hassan Rowhani, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, told the Reuters news service that the suspension would remain in place as long as talks with the EU continued regarding a final resolution of Iran’s nuclear case.
Details of the deal were unclear Sunday night, but Britain, France and Germany had offered Iran a light-water nuclear reactor to generate electricity, assistance in acquiring nuclear fuel and perhaps support for Iran’s bid to join the World Trade Organization in exchange for a full freeze and unfettered access to all nuclear sites for the United Nations’ nuclear monitoring agency.
A similar deal brokered by the three European nations last year fell apart after about six months because of disagreement over the terms.
The announcement was made 10 days before the board of the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency will meet to decide the next step. The letter will be included in the report to the board of governors, which is to go out today. Until Sunday, Iran had rejected the 35-member board’s request, made in September, to suspend enrichment activities as a confidence-building measure while the agency continued to investigate whether Iran was using its energy program to develop nuclear weapons.
On Thursday, Tehran offered a partial suspension for a limited time and asked for more rewards for its cooperation. The IAEA director-general’s office withheld its assessment of Iran’s nuclear program for the board of governors beyond the Friday deadline to allow negotiations to continue.
The European Union had warned Iran that without a freeze, the three nations would back a U.S. call to refer the issue to the Security Council, which could impose economic sanctions.
The deal reached Sunday still falls short of Washington’s demand for a permanent freeze -- or a complete scrapping -- of Iran’s enrichment program.
Two years ago, an Iranian opposition group exposed the country’s secret imports of nuclear technology over two decades, leading the U.S. to charge that Iran was using its energy program to cover up an effort to build nuclear weapons.
Iran denies it is trying to develop such an arsenal and asserts its right to pursue nuclear technology for peaceful uses. Despite its suspension of uranium enrichment last year, it has continued related activities, such as reprocessing uranium and building centrifuges. In a symbolically defiant step, it restarted enrichment activities in September.
After more than a dozen investigative visits to Iran over the last two years, the IAEA should either present evidence of a weapons program or “close the file” on their country, Tehran has said.
Some Iranian officials want to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to avoid further intrusive inspections, but others say they recognize the importance of maintaining economic and political ties and are trying to balance the country’s competing interests.
The suspension announced Sunday includes all enrichment activities the Europeans and the IAEA board asked for.
It also goes a step beyond the board’s demands by halting not just the conversion of uranium into gas but the preparations for that step. Iran had wanted to continue to produce the precursor of uranium hexafluoride, a gas that can be enriched in centrifuges to generate electricity or, at high levels, weapons-grade uranium.
Farley reported from New York and Yee from Vienna.