Iran Rejects Deal to Ship out Uranium, Officials Report
WASHINGTON - Iran told the United Nations nuclear watchdog on Thursday that it would not accept a plan its negotiators agreed to last week to send its stockpile of uranium out of the country, according to diplomats in Europe and American officials briefed on Iran's response.
The apparent rejection of the deal could unwind President Obama's effort to buy time to resolve the nuclear standoff.
In public, neither the Iranians nor the watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, revealed the details of Iran's objections, which came only hours after Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, insisted that "we are ready to cooperate" with the West.
But the European and American officials said that Iranian officials had refused to go along with the central feature of the draft agreement reached on Oct. 21 in Vienna: a provision that would have required the country to send about three-quarters of its current known stockpile of low-enriched uranium to Russia to be processed and returned for use in a reactor in Tehran used to make medical isotopes.
If Iran's stated estimate of its stockpile of nuclear fuel is accurate, the deal that was negotiated in Vienna would leave the country with too little fuel to manufacture a weapon until the stockpile was replenished with additional fuel, which Iran is producing in violation of United Nations Security Council mandates.
American officials said they thought that the accord would give them a year or so to seek a broader nuclear agreement with Iran while defusing the possibility that Israel might try to attack Iran's nuclear installations before Iran gained more fuel and expertise.
The Obama administration was anticipating that Iran would seek to back out of the deal, and in recent days the head of the nuclear agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, traveled secretly to Washington to talk about what to do if that happened, according to several American officials. Last weekend, President Obama called President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France in an effort to maintain a unified front in dealing with Tehran's leadership.
A senior European official characterized the Iranian response as "basically a refusal." The Iranians, he said, want to keep all of their lightly enriched uranium in the country until receiving fuel bought from the West for the reactor in Tehran.
"The key issue is that Iran does not agree to export its lightly enriched uranium," the official said. "That's not a minor detail. That's the whole point of the deal."
American officials said it was unclear whether Iran's declaration to Dr. ElBaradei was its final position, or whether it was seeking to renegotiate the deal - a step the Americans said they would not take.
Michael Hammer, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said that "we await clarification of Iran's response," but that the United States was "unified with our Russian and French partners" in support of the agreement reached in Vienna. That agreement explicitly called for Iran to ship 2,600 pounds of low-enriched uranium to Russia by Jan. 15, according to officials who have seen the document, which has never been made public.
News of the accord led to a political uproar in Iran, with some leading politicians arguing that the West could not be trusted to return Iran's uranium, produced at the Natanz nuclear enrichment plant. Clearly, however, the Iranian government does not want to appear to be rejecting the agreement. Mr. Ahmadinejad, in a speech in the northeastern city of Mashhad that was broadcast live on state television on Thursday, said, "We welcome cooperation on nuclear fuel, power plants and technology, and we are ready to cooperate."
He did not address Iran's efforts to change the deal, but cast it as a victory for Iranian steadfastness against the West. "A few years ago, they said we had to completely stop all our nuclear activities," Mr. Ahmadinejad said. "Now, look where we are today. Now, they want nuclear cooperation with the Iranian nation."
In fact, the Iranians found something to like in the Vienna deal. It essentially acknowledged their right to use low-enriched uranium that Iran produced in violation of three Security Council agreements. The Obama administration and its allies were willing to create that precedent because the material would be returned to Iran in the form of fuel rods, usable in a civilian nuclear plant but very difficult to convert to weapons use.
Mr. Ahmadinejad's remarks seemed to extend Iran's two-track public position on the nuclear dispute, offering a degree of compliance while also insisting that there were limits to its readiness for cooperation.
"As long as this government is in power, it will not retreat one iota on the undeniable rights of the Iranian nation," Mr. Ahmadinejad said. "Fortunately, the conditions for international nuclear cooperation have been met. We are currently moving in the right direction and we have no fear of legal cooperation, under which all of Iran's national rights will be preserved, and we will continue our work."
Mr. Ahmadinejad also suggested that Iran expected Western countries to honor payments for nuclear assistance it made before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iran paid more than $1 billion to help build a French reactor in return for access to that reactor's fuel. After the revolution, France reneged on the contract.
"We have nuclear contracts," Mr. Ahmadinejad said. "It has been 30 years, we have paid for them. Such agreements must be fulfilled."
Iran's envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, arrived in Vienna on Wednesday night to deliver Iran's response to the plan. On Thursday he told the ISNA news service that Tehran held a "positive view" of the Vienna talks.
An atomic energy agency team returned to the headquarters in Vienna on Thursday after inspecting a second nuclear enrichment plant, at Fordo, near the city of Qum, the state-run Press TV reported on its Web site.
Iran had kept the plant a state secret until a few days before the United States and other Western powers disclosed its existence last month.
In Washington on Thursday, the Senate Banking Committee unanimously approved a measure that would let the White House impose stronger sanctions on Iran. The Senate bill, passed a day after the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed a similar measure, would authorize sanctions against companies that provide Iran with refined petroleum products and would ban most trade between the countries, exempting food and medicine.
David E. Sanger reported from Washington, Steven Erlanger and Alan Cowell from Paris, and Robert F. Worth from Beirut, Lebanon.