Iran told the U.N. 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 U.S. officials briefed on Iran’s response.
The apparent rejection of the deal could unwind President Barack 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 U.S. 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, that would leave the country with too little fuel to manufacture a weapon until the stockpile is replenished with additional fuel, which Iran is producing in violation of U.N. Security Council mandates.
U.S. 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 gains 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 U.S. officials. Last weekend, Obama called President Dmitri 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.”
U.S. officials said it was unclear whether Iran’s declaration to 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 U.S. 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.