TEHRAN (AP) — Iran agreed Monday to a key big power demand, saying it was ready to ship much of its low-enriched uranium abroad — but immediately rolled out a new obstacle to compromise on its nuclear program by insisting it would continue enriching to higher levels.
Tehran’s decision to agree to export a large amount of its low-enriched uranium to Turkey after refusing to let it leave the country for more than half a year appeared to be an attempt to stave off a new set of looming U.N. sanctions — a doubtful endeavor, judging by initial reactions from Western nations spearheading attempts to deal with Iran’s nuclear defiance.
In Washington, the White House showed deep skepticism about the deal, saying it has the chance to be “positive step” but warning that the deal still allows Iran to keep enriching uranium toward the pursuit of a nuclear weapon.
“Given Iran’s repeated failure to live up to its own commitments, and the need to address fundamental issues related to Iran’s nuclear program, the United States and international community continue to have serious concerns,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said in a written statement to the media.
In a deal struck with Turkey and Brazil, Iran said it would export much of its low-enriched uranium to Turkey. In return, Iran would get fuel rods of medium-enriched uranium to use in a Tehran medical research reactor. The move was seen as an attempt by Iran to prevent a looming round of United Nations sanctions.
But the nations leading the charge for more punitive action against Iran over its nuclear defiance, including the U.S., were hardly swayed.
Mr. Gibbs said that Iran still must make clear that its nuclear program is intended only for peaceful purposes “or face consequences, including sanctions.”
The U.N. has already imposed three rounds of financial sanctions on Iran for its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment. The process is key to concerns over its program, because it can produce either low-enriched uranium needed to fuel a nuclear reactor or the highly enriched uranium needed to build a warhead.
Iran’s decision to continue its program to enrich uranium to near 20 percent is a direct violation of existing U.N. Security Council resolutions, Mr. Gibbs said.
The White House spokesman added that the declaration issued out of Tehran is also vague about Iran’s willingness to meet as promised with the set of countries working to resolve the nuclear standoff — the U.S, China, France, Russia, Britain and Germany.
An original U.N. proposal called for the Iranian uranium stockpile to be sent to Russia to be further enriched to 20 percent, then turned into fuel rods to power a Tehran medical research reactor that produces isotopes for cancer treatment. The material returned to Iran as rods cannot be processed beyond its lower, safer levels.
Britain’s government said it was awaiting confirmation of the reports on the deal.
“Our position on Iran is unchanged at the present time,” Steve Field, Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokesman, told reporters. “Iran has an obligation to reassure the international community, and until it does so, we will continue to work with our international partners on a sanctions resolution in the United Nations Security Council.”
German government spokesman Christoph Steegmans noted that the question remains whether Iran suspends enrichment of nuclear material at home, apparently alluding to Tehran’s decision to continue higher enrichment activities.
Despite such Western reaction, Iran’s move might give it a diplomatic victory by weakening growing resolve by Russia and China to support a fourth set of Security Council sanctions. Moscow and Beijing were responsible for watering down the language of previous anti-Iran sanctions but in recent months appeared to swing behind the U.S., Britain and France — the three other veto-wielding Security Council members — in their push for new U.N. penalties.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev cautiously welcomed the agreement but added that the deal may fail to fully satisfy the international community.
“As far as I understand from some Iranian official statements, it will continue such work. In that case, the international community’s concerns could remain,” he said during a trip to Ukraine.
Additionally the deal moves Turkey and Brazil — two emerging regional powers and influential elected Security Council members — closer to Tehran, which has played up American dominance in world affairs in its efforts to woo key emerging nations suspicious of aspects of U.S. foreign policy.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan signaled his backing for the deal.
“Turkey hopes that this process will be supported by world countries without any setbacks, “he told reporters in Baku, Azerbaijan. “There would be no question of sanctions if all countries support this process.”
When tentatively agreed on seven months ago, the deal committing Iran to export most of its low-enriched stock was hailed by the West because it would have delayed Iran’s ability to make a nuclear warheads by stripping it of the material it needs to make nuclear warheads.
The proposal put forward now would see Iran ship out about 2,600 pounds of low-enriched uranium — the same amount as under the tentative October agreement negotiated by the U.S., Russia, France and Iran and endorsed by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency.
In October, exporting that much would have left Iran with less than the 1,000 kilograms of material needed to make enough weapons grade uranium for a bomb. Since then, however, Iran has churned out enough additional low-enriched material to leave it with enough to make such a weapon even if it sends the originally agreed on amount abroad.
The original U.N. proposal called for the Iranian uranium stockpile to be sent to Russia to be further enriched to 20 percent, then turned into fuel rods to power a Tehran medical research reactor in Tehran that produces isotopes for cancer treatment. The material returned to Iran as fuel rods cannot be processed beyond its lower, safer levels.
But after its failure to change the original terms of the fuel swap deal, Iran declared it would make its own research reactor fuel and began enriching to 20 percent four months ago. That rang international alarm bells because — although substantially below weapons grade — that material could be turned into the fissile core of nuclear warheads much more quickly than Tehran’s larger stockpile of 3.5 percent, low-enriched uranium.
The Iranian government on Monday said it would continue to do so, even if all sides agreed to its export offer.
“Of course, enrichment of uranium to 20 percent will continue inside Iran,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told the official Islamic Republic News Agency.
Because agreement on a fuel swap, which would give Tehran the fuel rods for its research reactor, would negate Tehran’s stated rationale to enrich to near 20 percent, its decision to continue no matter is bound to feed international suspicions.
“There is no apparent civilian use for this material,” the British Foreign Office said, adding that the decision to continue higher enrichment “underlines Iran’s disregard for efforts to engage it in serious negotiation.”
Monday’s deal was announced after talks between Brazil’s president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Mr. Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran.
If Iran does not receive the fuel rods within a year, Turkey will be required to “quickly and unconditionally” return the uranium to Iran, according to a joint declaration by the three nations. Iran feared that under the initial U.N. deal, if a swap fell through, its uranium stock could be seized permanently.
Mr. Jahn reported from Vienna, Austria. Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Matthew Lee, in Washington, contributed to this report.