Iran agreed on Thursday in talks with the United States and other major powers to open its newly revealed uranium enrichment plant near Qum to international inspection in the next two weeks and to send most of its openly declared enriched uranium to Russia to be turned into fuel for a small reactor that produces medical isotopes, senior U.S. and other Western officials said.
Iran’s agreement in principle to export most of its enriched uranium for processing — if it happens — would represent a major accomplishment for the West, reducing Iran’s ability to make a nuclear weapon quickly and buying more time for negotiations to bear fruit.
If Iran has secret stockpiles of enriched uranium, however, the accomplishment would be hollow, a senior U.S. official conceded.
The officials described the long day of talks here with Iran, the first such discussions in which the United States has participated fully, as a modest success on a long and complicated road. Iran had at least finally engaged with the big powers on its nuclear program after more than a year, and had agreed to some tangible, confidence-building steps before another meeting with the same participants before the end of October.
But despite the relatively promising outcome, the Obama administration was at pains to strike a cautious tone, given Iran’s history of duplicity, its crackdown on its own people after the tainted June presidential elections and President Barack Obama’s concern about being perceived as naive or susceptible to a policy of Iranian delays.
Obama, speaking in Washington, called the talks “constructive,” but warned Tehran that he was prepared to move quickly to more stringent sanctions if negotiations over Iran’s nuclear ambitions dragged on.
“We’re not interested in talking for the sake of talking,” Obama told reporters in the White House Diplomatic Reception Room.
France and Britain have spoken of December as an informal deadline for Iran to negotiate seriously about stopping enrichment and cooperate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency. U.S. officials say that timeline is “about right,” but Iran continues to insist it has the right to enrich uranium for what it calls a purely civilian program.
Obama said Tehran must allow international inspectors into the site near Qum within the next two weeks, a timeline Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, agreed to in Geneva.
The atomic energy agency’s director-general, Mohamed ElBaradei, will travel to Tehran this weekend to discuss the details and timing of the inspections, officials said. But the Americans also want Iran to cooperate with the inspectors and make personnel and documents about the site near Qum available.
Besides the scheduling of another meeting, the main practical accomplishment on Thursday was Iran’s agreement in principle — to be worked out by experts later this month in Vienna — to ship what U.S. officials called “most” of its declared stockpile of lightly enriched uranium to Russia and France to be turned into nuclear fuel.