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135722-interieur-centrale-nucleaire-bushehr-iranCAIRO — Iran announced an agreement on Monday to ship some of its nuclear fuel to Turkey in a deal that could offer a short-term solution to its ongoing nuclear standoff with the West, or prove to be a tactic aimed at derailing efforts to bring new sanctions against Tehran.

The deal, negotiated by Turkey and Brazil, calls for Iran to ship 2,640 pounds of low enriched uranium to Turkey, where it would be stored. In exchange, after one year, Iran would have the right to receive about 265 pounds of material enriched to 20 percent from Russia and France.

The terms mirror a deal with the West last October that had fallen apart when Iran backtracked, but it is far from clear that the Obama administration will agree to it now — in part because Iran has continued to enrich uranium, adding to its stockpiles.

In October, the 1,200 kilograms that Iran was supposed to ship out of the country represented about two-thirds of its stockpile of nuclear fuel, and enough that the country would not enough fuel on hand to make a weapon. But now, the same amount of fuel accounts for a smaller proportion of its declared stockpile.

According to a Western diplomat who spoke in return for anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters, the amount of low-enriched uranium that Iran was prepared to ship to Turkey was believed to represent a little more than half of its current stockpile.

“The situation has changed,” the diplomat said.

The agreement could well undermine the Obama adminsitration’s chances of wining sanctions against Iran. China and Russia, which have been highly reluctant to impose sanctoins on a major trading partner, could use the announcement to end discussions about what would amount to a fourth round of sanctions.

But those sanctions were not based on the fuel-swap deal — they are being introduced because Iran has refused to halt further enrichment, or to answer international inspectors’ questions about evidence suggesting research into possible weapons designs and similar experiments. The inspectors have also been blocked from visiting many locations they have asked to examine.

Mr. Obama now faces a vexing choice. If he walks away from this deal, it will look like he is rejecting a agreement similar to one he was willing to sign eight months ago. But if he accepts it, many of the urgent issues he has said will have to be resolved with Iran in coming months — mostly over suspected weapons work — will be kicked down the road a year or more. Many American officials believe that is Iran’s top goal.

Iranian officials, however, applauded the deal as a breakthrough. They said on state television that the next step would be to agree to terms for the exchange with the so-called Vienna Group — Iran’s description of an informal grouping comprising the United States, France, Russia and the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watch-dog based in Vienna.

The Iranian officials said they would send a formal letter confirming the deal to the I.A.E.A. within a week.

“This shows that Iran is not pursuing nuclear weapons and rather peaceful nuclear technology,” said Ramin Mehmanparast, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, in a televised news conference on Monday. “Such interactions must replace a confrontational approach.”

Diplomats in Vienna said the I.A.E.A. had not been formally notified about the reported deal. But, the fact that Tehran had now agreed to a swap outside its own territory was potentially significant.

The announcement, which appeared aimed at satisfying international demands, came as Iran faces growing political and economic demands at home.

Though the agreement was regarded as a positive step by regional experts, there was also skepticism as to whether it was real or a tactic to transfer blame for the conflict to the West, while derailing the prospect of the United Nations Security Council imposing new sanctions, which 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. This is a genuine characteristic of the nature of Iranian politics.”

Coinciding with pressure for new sanctions, Iran will on June 12 mark the anniversary of last year’s disputed presidential election, which had led to months of protests and conflict. Iran is also wrestling with serious economic pressures of inflation, loss of foreign investment and the prospect of lifting subsidies on commodities, which would mean higher prices and, perhaps, renewed social tensions.

“With deals like this or announcements like this, you have to be a bit skeptical, at least initially, because so many in the past have proved to be a virtual opportunity rather than a more substantial one,” said Michael Axworthy, the former British diplomat and Iran expert who lectures at the University of Exeter.

There appear to be reasons to be skeptical. In Tehran, the Foreign Ministry spokesman told a person attending the press conference that Iran would not, for example, suspend its program to enrich uranium to 20 percent — which brings it closer to weapons grade.

Iran has said that its nuclear program is peaceful while the West has charged it is aimed at building weapons. Those charges have been amplified as Iran has improved and tested its long-range missile capacity.

The terms of this deal appear similar to the general terms of a deal negotiated in Geneva last year. That agreement fell apart when Iran appeared to backtrack from its commitment to send its fuel to a third country.

Iran had initially insisted that any swap be conducted on its territory, a demand rejected by the West. Sending most of its fuel out of Iran would for a time at least delay its ability to build a nuclear weapon during which time more long-term negotiations could take place.

The Geneva deal also called for shipping 2,640 pounds of 3.5 percent-enriched uranium to Russia where it would be more highly enriched, to 20 percent, and then to Paris, where it would be turned into fuel rods for Iran’s medical reactor. At the time that was deemed acceptable in Washington because it amounted to what was believed to be the majority of Iran’s stockpile.

The Geneva agreement fell apart under intense political pressure in Iran when nearly every political faction criticized it as compromising Iran’s right to nuclear energy. Iran’s negotiating team last time — and again Monday — argued that the deal is in Iran’s interest because it effectively confirms Iran’s right to enrich uranium.

“And with Iran’s support, today a statement has been issued which has officially recognized Iran’s right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy, especially uranium enrichment,” Ali-Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Nuclear Energy Organization, said on state television.

The terms of the deal were agreed in a three-way meeting involving the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; the foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki; Saeed Jalili, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council; President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil; and the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the official IRNA news service reported. The negotiations lasted 18 hours.

While the deal could prove a breakthrough to this long standing conflict, if successful it would also confirm the continued rise of Turkey and Brazil as global forces. Turkey, in particular, has in recent months re-engaged in the Middle East, seeking to fill a vacuum in leadership there.

“In a way it’s more of a question of what’s in it for Brazil and Turkey at this juncture, rather than what’s in it for Iran,” said Mr. Axworthy, the former British diplomat and Iran expert.

Ferai Tinc, a political analyst writing the Turkish newspaper Milliyet, 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.”

American diplomats and the Russian president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, said last week that Brazil’s efforts were the “last chance” to avoid sanctions. On Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton predicted that Mr. da Silva’s mediation effort would fail. She said Iran could be forced to prove its nuclear program was peaceful only with a new round of United Nations sanctions.

“Every step of the way has demonstrated clearly to the world that Iran is not participating in the international arena in the way that we had asked them to do and that they continued to pursue their nuclear program,” Mrs. Clinton told reporters.

William Yong in Tehran; Mona el Naggar in Cairo; Alexei Barrionuevo in São Paulo, Brazil; Sebnem Arsu in Istanbul; David E. Sanger in Washington; and Alan Cowell in London.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/18/world/middleeast/18iran.html?pagewanted=2&ref=global-home

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