U.S. Is Skeptical on Iranian Deal for Nuclear Fuel
WASHINGTON — The United States, Europe and Russia responded with extreme skepticism to Iran’s announcement on Monday that it had reached an agreement to ship roughly half of its nuclear fuel to Turkey, saying they would continue to press for new sanctions against Tehran.
Nonetheless, officials from several countries said that the deal, negotiated with the leaders of Turkey and Brazil, was a deftly timed attempt to throw the sanctions effort off track.
The terms were similar to those of an accord made with the West last October that fell apart when Iran backtracked. Since then, Iran has added considerably to its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, meaning that it would keep on Iranian territory about half of its current supply — or about enough fuel for one nuclear weapon if it chose to make one. The earlier deal was attractive to Washington because it would have deprived Tehran of enough known fuel to make a weapon, leaving breathing space for negotiations.
Rejecting the new deal, however, could make President Obama appear to be blocking a potential compromise. And the deal shows how Brazil and Turkey, which for their own economic interests oppose sanctions, may derail a fragile international consensus to increase pressure on Iran.
The sanctions are aimed primarily at an issue that the deal does not address: Iran’s refusal to halt further enrichment, as the United Nations Security Council has demanded for four years, or to answer international inspectors’ questions about evidence suggesting research into possible weapons designs and related experiments. The inspectors have also been blocked from visiting many suspect facilities and laboratories, and from interviewing key scientists and engineers.
The deal agreed to Monday in Tehran calls for Iran to ship 2,640 pounds of low-enriched uranium to Turkey, where it would be stored for one year. In exchange, Iran would have the right to receive about 265 pounds of uranium enriched to 20 percent by other countries for use in a reactor that makes isotopes for treating Iranian cancer patients.
But the White House noted that even while striking the deal, Iran insisted on Monday that it would continue its new effort to enrich fuel at a higher level, taking it closer to bomb-grade material. “While it would be a positive step for Iran to transfer low-enriched uranium off of its soil as it agreed to do last October, Iran said today that it would continue its 20 percent enrichment, which is a direct violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions,” Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said in a statement.
Mr. Gibbs made clear that the administration would continue to press forward with sanctions until, as he said, Iran demonstrates “through deeds — and not simply words — its willingness to live up to international obligations or face consequences, including sanctions.”
A senior administration official who has been deeply involved in the Iran standoff said the agreement announced Monday “is not a solution for the core of the Iranian enrichment program.”
Sergei B. Ivanov, the deputy prime minister of Russia, was similarly skeptical at a lunchtime speech in Washington. He said he expected the sanctions resolution to “be voted in the near future,” and said that the new Iranian accord should not be “closely linked” to the sanctions effort. “Iran should absolutely open up” to inspectors, he said. That statement was significant because Russia had been reluctant to join sanctions several months ago. China, which has also been hesitant, issued no statement.
White House officials were clearly angered at the leaders of Turkey and Brazil, whom Mr. Obama had met personally in Washington during last month’s Nuclear Security Summit to urge them to be careful not to give the Iranians a pretext to avoid complying with United Nations demands. Mr. Obama followed up those meetings with detailed letters in the last week of April outlining specific concerns, a senior administration official said. But those letters appeared to have limited influence on the outcome.
Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, Namik Tan, described the agreement as a “confidence-building measure,” and said he was disappointed in the Obama administration’s reaction. “I would have expected a more encouraging statement,” he said.
“We don’t believe in sanctions, and I don’t believe anybody can challenge us, and certainly not the United States,” Mr. Tan said. “They don’t work.”
Iranian officials applauded the deal as a breakthrough, with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad saying at a news conference in Tehran that the agreement would be “to the benefit of all nations who want to live freely and independently.“
Iranian officials said they would send a letter confirming the deal to the International Atomic Energy Agency of the United Nations within a week.
“This shows that Iran is not pursuing nuclear weapons, but rather peaceful nuclear technology,” said Ramin Mehmanparast, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, in a televised news conference. “Such interactions must replace a confrontational approach.”
Diplomats in Vienna said the atomic agency had not been formally notified about the deal, but added that Tehran’s agreement to a swap outside its own territory was potentially significant.
Yet many analysts suggested that the deal was meant to transfer blame for the conflict to the West, while derailing sanctions that had appeared possible within weeks.
“Iran has a history of forging a deal and then going back on it,” said Emad Gad, an expert in international relations at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “It lets the situation get really tense and then reaches an agreement.”
There appear to be reasons to be skeptical. In Tehran, the Foreign Ministry spokesman told a person attending the news conference that Iran would not, for example, suspend its program to enrich uranium to 20 percent — closer to weapons grade.
Iran has said that its nuclear program is peaceful, while the West has charged that it is aimed at building weapons.
As international pressure for new sanctions grows, Iran is preparing for the June 12 anniversary of last year’s disputed presidential election, which led to months of protests and conflict.
The earlier agreement fell apart under political pressure in Iran when nearly every political faction criticized it as compromising Iran’s right to nuclear energy. Then and now, Iran’s negotiating team argued that the deal was in the nation’s interest because it effectively confirmed Iran’s right to enrich uranium.
If successful, the agreement would enhance and underscore the continued rise of Turkey and Brazil as global forces. Ferai Tinc, a political analyst writing in the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, said, “Ankara was neither a full supporter of Iran nor an advocate of violence and sanctions against it, but stood strongly for promoting a diplomatic resolution.“