Iran's Big Test

With the international atomic agency involved in today's tentative nuclear deal, it's no longer a U.S.-Iran showdown, writes Michael Adler. That puts new pressure on Tehran to deliver Friday.

The drive to get Iran to ship uranium abroad to ease fears it seeks nuclear weapons got a boost today. U.N. nuclear chief Mohammed ElBaradei put forth a draft agreement for the deal, at a meeting that was falling apart, to Iran, the United States, Russia and France. ElBaradei said he was presenting “a balanced approach on how to move forward.” Iran has until Friday to answer. The other countries back the draft. A diplomat close to the talks told me: “It is important that ElBaradei is engaged.” The reason why? “Now it is the whole world offering Iran this deal,” he said, referring to ElBaradei’s position as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The meeting, which started Monday in the Austrian capital, was to finalize an agreement reached in principle in Geneva on October 1. The deal was to ship out about 80 percent of the some 1,500 kilograms of low enriched uranium Iran has produced. Iran’s current total is enough to enrich further to make one bomb. The idea is to reduce this stockpile, and so to reduce worry about Iran making a nuclear weapon. This would give time for Iran and world powers to hold formal talks to remove concern that Iran is a nuclear threat. The uranium would go to Russia for processing from 3.5 to 19.75 percent enriched—enough to fuel a research reactor in Tehran which makes radioisotopes for medical use, but still well below bomb levels of over 90 percent. France was in line to take the enriched uranium from Russia and make it into the final metal fuel.

The compromise over Iran’s stockpile of uranium is a long shot. Iran has warned it is ready to make its own fuel for the Tehran reactor.

The wrinkle was that Iran came to Vienna saying it did not want the French involved. Iran has a longstanding grievance against France for failing to deliver on promises of delivering enriched uranium made before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. And this despite the fact that Iran invested more than $1 billion in France’s Eurodif enrichment company in the 1970s. Meanwhile, France is today the most hard-line Western state in insisting that Iran be kept from getting the bomb and demands that Iran face crippling sanctions if it fails to follow through with a diplomatic solution. In at least one European capital, the Iranian ambassador stopped by this week to tell his government counterparts that there are “problems” with the French, according to diplomats.

ElBaradei, a Nobel peace laureate, lobbied all sides to work out a compromise. He even hosted a meeting in his office with the U.S. and Iranian delegations. The agreement, a technical document that goes into details, including on finances and liability, apparently has Iran shipping the uranium to Russia, with France not mentioned as a direct part of the deal. But France is one of the options, actually the only option, to be the subcontractor for turning the enriched uranium into fuel rods, diplomats said. As for the crucial issue of timing, the agreement says Iran is to contact the IAEA before the end of the year about shipping the uranium, according to diplomats. The actual shipping should occur quickly once this is done, “in no more than a week,” said one diplomat. This apparently means the 1,200 kilograms of enriched uranium to be shipped might not all go before some time in January next year. France has said it wants all the uranium shipped by the end of the year, but in Paris, French political director Jacques Audibert was quoted saying: "We approve of the proposal."

ElBaradei presided over the meeting in Vienna. He opened Monday’s session with comments that stressed his recurrent warnings about the impossibility of resolving the crisis with anything but diplomacy, diplomats said. The United States and its allies are also eager to change the dynamics of a confrontation marked by delays, as well as a lack of communication and results. Iran says its nuclear work is peaceful and is defying five U.N. Security Council resolutions that call on it to suspend uranium enrichment.

The goal in Vienna was to get in writing what was promised in Geneva, and so to keep the process from stalling. The idea is to move quickly to political talks. Iran’s refusing to follow through on shipping uranium out of the country could put this in doubt and force the United States and its allies to escalate the crisis by making good on their threat of tough sanctions against the Islamic republic.

The compromise over Iran's stockpile of uranium is a long shot. Iran has warned it is ready to make its own fuel for the Tehran reactor, which would alarm the U.S., as this would increase Iran’s enrichment technology. Iran has also threatened to buy the uranium fuel it needs, which would leave its stockpile bulging with enough for a nuclear weapon. But President Obama has personally shepherded efforts to make sure that Iran uses its own uranium to make the fuel for its research reactor. If the deal does work out, it will be a crucial first step and give hope of real progress to come.

Michael Adler, a longtime reporter for Agence France-Presse, is a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and is writing a book on Iran’s nuclear diplomacy, which he has covered for most of this decade.