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Western Powers "Very Close" to Plan for Iranian Uranium Swap

(Oct. 28) -Technicians in 2005 transfer a container of unrefined uranium "yellowcake" at Iran's Isfahan uranium conversion facility. The United States and its European allies are nearing consensus on a new plan for the exchange of Iranian low-enriched uranium, according to a senior U.S. official (Behrouz Mehri/Getty Images). (Oct. 28) -Technicians in 2005 transfer a container of unrefined uranium "yellowcake" at Iran's Isfahan uranium conversion facility. The United States and its European allies are nearing consensus on a new plan for the exchange of Iranian low-enriched uranium, according to a senior U.S. official (Behrouz Mehri/Getty Images).

The United States and its European partners were "very close to having an agreement" on a new proposal to exchange Iranian uranium for material to fuel a medical isotope production reactor in Tehran, a high-level U.S. official told the New York Times yesterday (see GSN, Oct. 27).

The proposal would draw from a plan put forward in 2009 by the International Atomic Energy Agency and ultimately rejected by Iran. The deal -- worked out with with France, Russia and the United States -- was aimed in part at deferring Iran's ability to produce sufficient material for a bomb long enough to more fully address U.S. and European concerns about Iranian enrichment activities. Tehran has maintained its atomic ambitions are strictly peaceful.

The updated proposal would call for Iran to ship more than 4,400 pounds of low-enriched uranium abroad. The plan would demand 66 percent more material than last year's proposal to account for Iran's continued production of low-enriched uranium over the last year.

The plan would also require Iran to stop enriching uranium to the 20 percent level. The Middle Eastern state in February began further refining low-enriched uranium from its stockpile, ostensibly to fuel the Tehran medical reactor. The United States and other Western powers, though, have feared the process could help Iran produce nuclear-weapon material, which has an enrichment level around 90 percent.

Iran's response to the proposal would help indicate the degree to which its atomic strategy has been affected by new punitive measures adopted this year by the U.N. Security Council, European Union and a number of countries, officials said. Still, some were pessimistic about the plan's prospects in light of an intelligence determination that Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had overruled President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in rejecting last year's version of the proposal.

“This will be a first sounding about whether the Iranians still think they can tough it out or are ready to negotiate,” a high-level U.S. official said this week. “We have to convince them that life will get worse, not better, if they don’t begin to move" (David Sanger, New York Times, Oct. 27).

Iran has not yet officially replied to an invitation to join new discussions next month with EU foreign policy Catherine Ashton, who would represent the five permanent U.N. Security Council member nations and Germany, the Obama administration indicated yesterday.

"The first thing we're waiting for is a response from Iran," Agence France-Presse quoted State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley as saying.

The six powers were ready to address a potential uranium exchange "if Iran is prepared to sit down and seriously debate," Crowley added.

"But at the same time, we need to have Iran come forward and demonstrate affirmatively that it's living up to its obligations, and its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes," the spokesman said.

The uranium exchange plan "is not a substitute for the ongoing concerns that we have about the nature of Iran's nuclear program," he said.

Crowley referred to the need for a "sustained, serious conversation, and where Iran has to convince the international community that it's abiding by its international commitments" (Agence France-Presse I/Google News, Oct. 27).

A uranium exchange deal is a needed prerequisite to other diplomatic progress between Iran and Western powers, and such an agreement is still possible, said Ivanka Barzashka, a research associate with the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.

Still, "an increase in the swap amount will surely be seen by Iran as moving goalposts and will likely cause further delays in negotiations," Reuters quoted Barzashka as saying in an e-mail statement (Reuters I, Oct. 28).

Meanwhile, the Obama administration yesterday blacklisted 37 firms in Cyprus, Germany and Malta as well as five individuals for their purported ties to the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, AFP reported. The United States has so far penalized 70 firms entities linked to the Iranian shipping firm, which was first hit by sanctions in 2008, according to the Treasury Department.

The penalties bar U.S. citizens from doing from doing business with targeted entities.

The move "targets IRISL's complex network of shipping and holding companies and executives and further exposes Iran's use of its national maritime carrier to advance its illicit weapons of mass destruction program and to carry military cargoes," the department said in a statement (Agence France-Presse II/Yahoo!News, Oct. 27).

"We will continue to expose the elaborate structures and tactics Iran uses to shield its shipping line from international scrutiny so that it can continue to facilitate illicit commerce," Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey said in the press release. "This pattern of obfuscation is leading the private sector around the world to refuse business with Iran rather than risk becoming involved in its nuclear and missile programs" (U.S. Treasury Department release, Oct. 27).

Beijing unofficially called on Chinese companies to curb petroleum cooperation with Iran as two of the country's three major energy firms pursued agreements to deepen ties with the U.S. energy industry, Reuters reported today.

China's government issued the call after the United States adopted independent penalties in June targeting non-U.S. firms doing business with the Middle Eastern state.

"The political pressure came directly from the government... and I believe it's logical to draw a link with these U.S. deals," said an industry insider familiar with China's international energy operations.

"As part of its ongoing efforts to convince China to implement sanctions against Iran, the U.S. has been discussing access by China to its energy market," according to a political expert in Beijing.

China National Petroleum Corp., one of the two firms engaged in new dealings with the United States, would not abandon its work with Iran, according to insiders

"Strategically China is not going to give up on Iran," said an executive familiar with Chinese energy industry's international planning (Chen Aizhu, Reuters II, Oct. 28).

The European Union this week adopted rules limiting financial and technical support for Iran's energy sector while permitting the petroleum trade with the Persian Gulf nation to continue, the Washington Post reported.

"If you want to send a tanker filled with refined petrol to Iran, and you have proved that you are not carrying any other goods that we deem illegal, Europe has no problem," one European official dealing with the penalties said. "We don't want any negative effect on the Iranian population or to deprive them of energy, so we do not follow U.S. measures that go beyond United Nations sanctions."

U.S. officials yesterday indicated they were generally happy with the EU regulations, even though Washington has adopted measures barring dealings with Iran involving oil and gas.

"We are going at the supply, while they are going at the back end," one high-level Obama administration official working on Iran policy said. "We have had the kind of cooperation and coordination with the Europeans that has been unprecedented."

"The regulations turned out to be pretty solid," the official added. "At each stage, when they have faced a choice between going soft or going heavy, they have gone heavy" (Erdbrink/Kessler, Washington Post, Oct. 28).

Elsewhere, the head of the United Kingdom's MI6 foreign intelligence agency today referred to the importance of clandestine efforts to address Iran's disputed atomic activities, AFP reported.

"Stopping nuclear proliferation cannot be addressed purely by conventional diplomacy. We need intelligence-led operations to make it more difficult for countries like Iran to develop nuclear weapons," MI6 head John Sawers said.

"The revelations around Iran's secret enrichment site at Qum were an intelligence success (see GSN, Sept. 25, 2009). They led to diplomatic pressure on Iran intensifying, with tougher U.N. and EU sanctions, which are beginning to bite," he said.

"The Iranian regime must think hard about where its best interests lie," Sawers said.

"The risks of failure in this area are grim. ... And the longer international efforts delay Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons technology, the more time we create for a political solution to be found," he said (Agence France-Presse III/Yahoo!News, Oct. 28).

In Iran, an official on Tuesday said the nation's Bushehr nuclear power plant might eventually host two or three additional power reactors, the Tehran Times reported.

“This facility has the capacity to house two to three other reactors,” Iranian Atomic Energy Organization head Ali Akbar Salehi said (Tehran Times, Oct. 27).

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