- The Washington Times - Friday, October 2, 2009

GENEVA | Iran has agreed “in principle” to send out most of its stockpile of potential bomb fuel to Russia for further refining - a significant step that decreases the chances it could make a nuclear weapon in the near future.

A senior U.S. official reported the development at the end of a historic day that included a 45-minute one-on-one meeting between William J. Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili. Their talks, which included mention of Iran’s domestic political turmoil, were the first openly acknowledged comprehensive negotiations between the two countries since the United States broke diplomatic relations with Iran in 1980 while Iran held U.S. diplomats hostage.

“This is a constructive beginning, but hard work lies ahead,” President Obama told reporters in Washington at the end of the Geneva session. “We’ve entered a phase of intensive international negotiations. And talk is no substitute for action. Pledges of cooperation must be fulfilled. We have made it clear that we will do our part to engage the Iranian government on the basis of mutual interests and mutual respect, but our patience is not unlimited.”

Thursday’s deal involvesan enrichment plant at Natanz south of Tehran that has produced about 3,300 poundsof low-enriched uranium, potentially enough for a nuclear weapon. Iran also agreed to allow international inspectors access to a second facility near Qom whose existence Mr. Obama revealed last week. That plant had not begun to make nuclear fuel.

A senior U.S. official involved in Thursday’s talks, who asked not to be named under standard diplomatic rules, said specialists would meet in Vienna, Austria, on Oct. 18 to work out the technicalities of taking “most” of Iran’s low-enriched uranium to Russia for further enrichment before it is returned to Iran for use in a civilian reactor in Tehran that makes medical isotopes.

The official said the reactor had been using fuel supplied by Argentina in the early 1990s that was expected to run out in the next year or year and a half.

“To make a long story short, the United States and Russia joined together in a proposal to the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] … to use Iran’s own [low-enriched uranium] stockpile as the basis, as the feedstock for the reactor fuel that’s required,” he said.

The returned fuel would not have sufficient concentration of U-235 to make a bomb and would be under the inspection of the IAEA - as is the uranium enrichment plant at Natanz that has been churning out low-enriched uranium since 2006.

“The potential advantage of this, if it’s implemented, is that it would significantly reduce Iran’s [low-enriched uranium] stockpile, which itself is a source of anxiety in the Middle East and elsewhere,” the U.S. official said.

Another senior U.S. official said, “During our talks today, the Iranians agreed to accept this proposal in principle.”

Nuclear specialists said the agreement, if implemented, was a major step, albeit one that fell short of an Iran agreement to stop enriching uranium altogether.

“This demonstrates seriousness on the part of the Iranian side and bodes well for future discussions,” said Jim Walsh, a proliferation specialist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, was more skeptical, noting that Iran was still enriching uranium and might have other plants that have not been revealed.

“This is backing into where we want to be, and if we don’t get there soon, we’re in a bad place,” he said.

The United States and its European allies have given Iran until the end of the year to demonstrate that it is not seeking to make nuclear weapons or face new economic and diplomatic sanctions.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking at the State Department after she was briefed by Mr. Burns, said, “It was a productive day, but the proof of that has not yet come to fruition, so we’ll wait and continue to press our point of view and see what Iran decides to do.”

Since he came into office, Mr. Obama has been reaching out to the Iranian government for negotiations, sending public and private overtures including two letters to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The strategy appeared more controversial after disputed June 12 presidential elections led to massive protests that were suppressed violently by the Iranian government.

Some U.S. officials have suggested that the protests have weakened Iran’s government and made it more willing to make concessions on the nuclear issue. Others said the prospects for compromise were still poor given Iran’s attachment to its nuclear program.

However, Iran presented a proposal for talks last month that was quickly accepted by the United States as a basis for discussions.

The U.S. also has worked to unify international opinion against the nuclear program - a process made easier by last week’s revelation about a secret enrichment site.

Lee Hamilton, president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, called Thursday’s meetings “an important procedural breakthrough. I would not anticipate any quick results. The problems between the two countries are so deep that it will take a lot of talking to make progress. But it’s a hopeful sign, a positive sign.”

Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, took part in Thursday’s talks, along with the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.

Mr. Solana, who chaired the seven-nation session, said the participants agreed to “an intensified dialogue in the coming weeks” and will meet again before month’s end.

Mr. Burns, who held the same position in the Bush administration, took part in a similar meeting in Geneva in July 2008, but he was there only as an observer. At the time, the U.S. demanded that Iran suspend uranium enrichment as a precondition for negotiations.

Prior to that, U.S. and Iranian diplomats held intermittent talks from the fall of 2001 through May 2003 dealing with Afghanistan, al Qaeda and Iraq. But the meetings in Europe were not announced and did not deal with the nuclear program or overall relations.

The U.S. and Iranian ambassadors to Iraq also met several times for discussions confined to Iraq.

Mr. Jalili described the more than seven hours of talks on Thursday as “good,” but he did not address the uranium-enrichment deal - or Tehran’s nuclear program - during a news conference. He said, however, that no country should have nuclear weapons.

The group negotiating in Geneva is known as P5+1, referring to the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany. Tehran has not responded to an offer of political and economic incentives the group presented in April, and the West has threatened more sanctions.

The second U.S. official said that sanctions were barely mentioned Thursday, because the meeting was “very much about engagement.”

Mr. Solana said that Mr. Jalili had promised to allow international inspections in Qom in the next “couple of weeks.” The IAEA, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, said that Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei would visit Tehran this weekend to discuss details.

Mr. Obama said he expected “unfettered access” to the site near Qom within two weeks.

In New York, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told reporters that Iran has now declared all its nuclear sites.

In addition to nuclear issues, the powers discussed other security, political and economic matters, diplomats said.

“While the focus of the discussion was on Iran’s nuclear program, both sides had a frank exchange on other issues, including human rights,” said State Department spokesman Robert Wood.

The second U.S. official said that Mr. Burns also raised the issue about the government crackdown on protesters after Iran’s June 12 election.

Barbara Slavin and Jon Ward in Washington contributed to this report.

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