Iran is supposed to respond by Oct. 23 on whether it will agree to further enrich its low-enriched uranium in Russia and France, but delaying tactics are already being employed. In any case, Iran's final answer is not likely to satisfy the West and Israel. And when the deadline comes, it will be important to watch not only how the United States and Israel respond. The stakes are rising for Russia as well.
Iran faces a deadline Oct. 23 to give a final answer to the United States, Russia, France and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on a proposal to send its low-enriched uranium abroad for further enrichment. The proposal would call for Iran to ship the bulk of its low-enriched uranium — about 1,200 kilograms — to Russia for additional enrichment (to around 20 percent) and then on to France for conversion into metal fuel rods and medical isotopes before they are shipped back to Tehran for use in a research reactor. Theoretically, the plan would assure the P-5+1 powers and Israel that enough of Iran's low-enriched uranium would be taken out of the Iranians' hands and set Iran back by at least one year if (as suspected) Iran were planning on trying to enrich those uranium stockpiles to weapons-grade (around 90 percent) for a nuclear device. As expected, Iran is already setting the stage to reject the terms of the deal and prolong the talks. Earlier in the week, when Iran was to meet with U.S., Russian and French representatives at the IAEA headquarters in Vienna, Iran targeted France in its newest delay tactic, arguing that Tehran simply could not trust Paris to fulfill the agreement to deliver nuclear material to Iran. Iranian representatives then held a bilateral meeting with U.S. representatives in Vienna under the supervision of IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei, after which the Iranian representative, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said he agreed with the draft proposal on overseas enrichment but would have to check with his superiors in Tehran before he could provide a final answer. That final answer is unlikely to satisfy the West and Israel. On Oct. 23, in a signal that Iran is planning to stretch out the talks yet again, Iranian state television quoted a member of Iran's negotiating team from the Vienna talks as saying Tehran is still waiting for a "positive and constructive" response from its negotiating partners on Iran's proposal for a third party to supply Iran with nuclear fuel. The report did not include details on the terms of the Iranian proposal, but it is likely referring to Iran's earlier counterproposal to not only hold onto its low-enriched uranium but also to have a third party sell and ship Iran nuclear fuel for civilian use. In other words, Iran is proposing to have its (yellow) cake and eat it too, which is not going to fly with the United States. Such delaying tactics are not surprising, but Iran may find that they will not be as effective this time around. The Israelis have been very careful to issue statements this past week that portray Israel as acting as reasonable as possible in awaiting the outcome of these negotiations. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Oct. 22 that if the enrichment proposal were finalized, it would legitimize Iran's uranium enrichment activity for peaceful purposes. In reality, the Israelis have no doubt that Iran has an agenda for a nuclear weapons program and are simply waiting for these diplomatic phases to play out so they can push Washington into applying more punitive measures — ranging from sanctions to military action — to contain the Iranian nuclear program. It thus becomes imperative to watch for any differences and similarities in how the United States and Israel react to Iran's blowing off the negotiations. Tehran can always follow up with a conciliatory gesture should Washington react strongly, especially with IAEA inspectors due in Iran on Oct. 24 to inspect the Qom uranium enrichment facility, but Israel will be looking to place restrictions on the duration of these talks. It will be just as important to watch the Russians, who are using the Iran nuclear negotiations in their own geopolitical battle with the United States. After U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's explosive comments in Bucharest on Oct. 22, where he essentially declared that the United States would throw its full support behind a rainbow of color revolutions on the Russian periphery, Moscow is likely to respond with a salvo of Iran threats. These could include the all-too-familiar Russian statements on completing the Bushehr nuclear power plant for Iran once and for all or the ambiguous warnings on the sale of S-300 systems to Iran. Indeed, Russian Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko said Oct. 23 that "key milestones" toward the construction of Bushehr would be completed by the end of the year. The stakes are rising for all players involved.