- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 24, 2009

Iran said Friday it would respond next week to a U.S.-backed plan that would have Tehran send out much of its stockpiled nuclear fuel by the end of this year.

Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. nuclear watchdog, had set Friday as a deadline for Iran’s reply.

U.S. officials said they were willing to give Tehran more time but that their patience had limits.

“We can stretch things for a few days,” State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said. “But we’re not going to wait forever.”

Iran specialists said that divisions within the Tehran government were partly responsible for the delay and that some Iranians were having trouble digesting a proposal that would send out of the country about 2,600 pounds of partly processed uranium - nearly 80 percent of the material it has taken Iran many years to amass.

(Corrected paragraph:) “It’s a gamble for [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad,” said Kaveh Afrasiabi, a former adviser to Iranian nuclear negotiators now in the United States.

Under the deal, Russia is to further process the uranium and send it back to Iran for use in an old U.S.-supplied research reactor that makes medical isotopes.

“What if they don’t deliver?” Mr. Afrasiabi said. “It will undercut Mr. Ahmadinejad big time.”

Mr. Afrasiabi said Iran would prefer to send out the uranium in two batches to test foreign intentions and see whether the deal would lead to a wider resolution of Iran’s many quarrels with the outside world.

U.S. officials and specialists on Iran said that would not work for two reasons.

First, a major aim from the non-Iranian point of view is to deprive Iran of so-called “breakout” capacity to take its slightly enriched uranium and process it further into fuel for a bomb. Second, it makes little economic sense to reprocess small amounts of uranium to fuel the Tehran research reactor, the specialists said.

“It was made clear to the Iranians that this whole proposal was based on Iran not having a breakout capability,” said Patrick Clawson, an Iran specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “If they keep half, they still have enough to make a bomb.”

Mr. Clawson also noted that it could take a year to refine the uranium for use at the Tehran reactor, which is expected to run out of fuel by the end of next year.

Iran originally came to the IAEA this past summer asking to purchase more fuel for the reactor, as a previous stockpile from Argentina had begun to run down. The Obama administration came up with the idea of using Iran’s own partly enriched uranium.

However, some Iranian politicians have voiced concern about sending out the material without assurances that U.N. sanctions against Iran will be lifted and that no more will be imposed.

Tehran-e Emruz, a Tehran newspaper, editorialized Thursday that if all U.N. resolutions against Iran are “canceled and Iran’s dossier sent back to the IAEA, we will be the victors” of the agreement. “Otherwise we will have to consider U.S. allegations that the West has achieved its goals in these talks.”

Iran has been on the defensive on the nuclear issue since Sept. 24, when President Obama disclosed that the country had been secretly constructing a uranium enrichment plant near the theological center of Qom.

The IAEA is scheduled to inspect the facility for the first time on Sunday.

To sweeten the deal for the uranium transfer, the Obama administration has offered to provide safety upgrades for the Tehran research reactor, which was sent to Iran in 1968 when Lyndon B. Johnson was president and the U.S.-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was in power.

A U.S. official, who spoke on the condition that he not be named to avoid prejudicing Iran’s decision making, said “the U.S. is willing to provide through the IAEA safety upgrades” for the Tehran reactor so that it will work properly with the new fuel.

Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s envoy to the Vienna, Austria-based IAEA, was quoted on the Web site of Iranian state television as saying that “Iran is precisely examining different dimensions of the contents of the proposed agreement about the provisional supply of fuel for the Tehran research reactor. … After final evaluation, I will give the result to Mr. ElBaradei when I return to Vienna next week.”

The IAEA said Iran had told Mr. ElBaradei it was “considering the proposal in depth and in a favorable light, but it needs time until the middle of next week to provide a response.

The director general hopes that Iran’s response will be equally positive, since “approval of this agreement will signal a new era of cooperation.”

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