Iran’s initial agreement to back down in the face of international pressure and ship its nuclear fuel outside the country shows that the regime feels vulnerable after waves of protests and other setbacks to its regional influence.
Iran scholars and proliferation specialists say the government in Tehran is trying to shore up its legitimacy in the aftermath of its disputed June presidential election and stave off more economic sanctions. Iran is also feeling insecure because of bombings in its southeast, setbacks to allies in Lebanon and Gaza, and defections abroad, including that of a presidential adviser’s daughter.
“They’re feeling under a lot of pressure,” said Greg Thielmann, a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association.
Iran did get something that it wanted, however. Under the draft agreement, the U.S. will upgrade a research reactor in Tehran that was provided to the Shah in the 1960s, two Iranian officials said. That would be the first U.S. civilian nuclear cooperation with Iran since its 1979 revolution.
While the Iranian government has succeeded in crushing mass demonstrations against the fraud-tainted re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, there are still almost daily protests on Iranian university campuses, and Mr. Ahmadinejad’s election opponents - Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi - have yet to concede.
More anti-government demonstrations are expected on Nov. 4, the 30th anniversary of the 1979 Iranian seizure of U.S. Embassy hostages.
Oil prices are half what they were at their peak a year ago, and the government has been forced to cut subsidies for gasoline and other consumer staples. In Lebanon, Hezbollah came in second to a pro-Western alliance in parliamentary elections in early June, while Hamas is still recovering from a punishing Israeli offensive in Gaza. Meanwhile, Syria, a key Iranian partner for the past three decades, is seeking to improve relations with the United States.
A bombing Sunday in Iran’s restive southeastern province of Baluchistan killed several members of the elite Revolutionary Guards and highlighted opposition to the regime among the Sunni Muslim Baluch ethnic minority.
There have also been several reported defections of Iranian nuclear scientists to the West. This month, Narges Kalhor - the filmmaker daughter of a top aide to Mr. Ahmadinejad, Mehdi Kalhor - sought asylum in Canada, her father told the Etemad newspaper.
At the same time, President Obama’s outreach to Iran has deprived the regime of an easy enemy and united foreign countries against the Iranian nuclear program to a greater extent than at any time since Iran’s first uranium-enrichment plant was revealed in 2002.
Mr. Thielmann pointed to the Sept. 25 revelation by Mr. Obama, flanked at the time by the leaders of Britain and France, that Iran had hidden a second uranium-enrichment facility near the theological center of Qom.
Even Mohamed ElBaradei, chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said Iran was “outside the law, and then there’s the domestic factor,” Mr. Thielmann said.
On Wednesday, Mr. ElBaradei announced the new nuclear agreement, which he said Iran must confirm by Friday.
“Everybody who participated at the meeting was trying to look at the future, not at the past, trying to heal the wounds,” he told reporters, according to the Associated Press.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton devoted most of a speech Wednesday at the U.S. Institute of Peace to North Korea’s nuclear transgressions. But she also said that “prompt action is needed on implementing the plan to use Iran’s own low enriched uranium to refuel the Tehran research reactor, which is used to produce medical isotopes.”
Under the agreement, Iran is to send 75 percent to 80 percent of its partly processed uranium to Russia. There, it will be enriched further and then sent back to Iran for use in a reactor that produces medical isotopes for treating cancer and other diseases.
Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s chief delegate to the IAEA, told reporters in Vienna that the draft agreement, reached after three days of talks, was “on the right track.”
While Mr. Soltanieh said his superiors would “have to thoroughly study this text and also [need] further elaboration” from foreign countries, his comments were the most positive in public since Iran agreed in principle to the deal during historic talks in Geneva on Oct. 1.
Mr. Soltanieh suggested that the U.S. would help upgrade the Tehran reactor.
“One of the aspects, in addition to the fuel, is the control instrumentation and safety equipment of the reactor,” he said, according to the AP. “We have been informed about the readiness of the United States in a technical project with the IAEA to cooperate in this respect.”
A second Iranian official, who spoke on the condition that he not be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the U.S. would provide safety equipment for the main control room of the reactor, located in the Amir Abad district of Tehran.
U.S. officials would not provide further details, saying they wanted to wait for Iran to confirm the agreement.
Jim Walsh, a proliferation specialist at MIT, said an offer to improve the safety and functionality of the Tehran reactor would be “a sweetener” to allow the Iranian government to say it had achieved an important concession from the United States.
The 5-megawatt research facility originally used fuel with a 90 percent concentration of a uranium isotope, U-235, that can also be used to make bombs. In the 1990s, however, Argentina modified the reactor to use fuel with a 20 percent concentration of U-235. That fuel is now running out, and Iran told the IAEA this summer that it needs to replenish it by next year.
Iran currently has about 3,300 pounds of uranium enriched to 5 percent at a facility in Natanz, south of Tehran. Under the tentative deal, it would send out more than 2,600 pounds to Russia for enriching to 20 percent.
This would help alleviate fears that Iran could quickly made a nuclear weapon, since it takes about 2,200 pounds of low-enriched uranium to convert into a bomb.
David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington-based think tank, called the deal one that “just buys time.”
“It’s not a solution,” he said.
“It’s not a good idea to encourage Iran to make medical isotopes” by upgrading and refueling the Tehran reactor. “I’m not sure why it’s in U.S. interests” to do so, he said.
Mr. Walsh said, “The details are not as important as the offer itself. We’re starting to see some principles established: the U.S. recognizes the legitimacy of Iranian enrichment, and the Iranians recognize that they can rely on outside suppliers.”
In the past, Iran has said that it must enrich uranium by itself because it cannot depend on foreign countries, which broke nuclear deals with Iran after the revolution.
• Barbara Slavin can be reached at .