VIENNA (Reuters) - Iran has outlined a plan to the U.N. atomic watchdog under which it would give up some of its nuclear material but diplomats say the gesture would have no effect on a push to widen sanctions against Tehran.
Under the plan agreed with Brazil and Turkey last week, Iran would transfer 1,200 kg (2,646 lb) of its low-enriched uranium — enough for an atomic bomb if enriched to higher levels — to Turkey within a month.
A year later the Islamic Republic would get special nuclear fuel rods for a medical research reactor which makes isotopes to help treat cancer patients.
Why is the West cautious about this proposal?
Western officials say the landscape has changed in the seven months since they brokered a similar plan with Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as a way to ease tensions over Tehran’s atomic work.
Iran has continued enriching uranium and taking away 1,200 kg now would still leave Iran with enough for a bomb if it wanted to build one. Tehran says it has no intention of doing this and says its work is for peaceful purposes only.
Some observers say the swap is still worth it because it would remove half the material. Others say the deal has now lost its value because the bomb risk would remain and it fails to build confidence.
Iran also started enriching uranium to higher levels in February, saying it wanted to make fuel for the reactor itself, but the move unsettled Western powers because it takes the material closer to the grade needed for atomic weapons.
Tehran said it took the step because it said it was tired of waiting for the original deal to be agreed. Western officials say it was Iran which stalled progress, with a series of new conditions for the swap which it knew would not be accepted.
Iran has vowed that it will not stop its higher enrichment, even if the fuel supply agreement goes through and has started setting up more equipment for it.
Western diplomats have described this refusal to halt higher enrichment as a likely deal-breaker. They also question why Iran would still need to continue this process — which like its lower-grade enrichment violates U.N. sanctions — when countries are prepared to give it the fuel rods it says it needs.
They say Iran lacks the capability to make the specialized fuel assemblies in the short-term, so it makes no sense to produce more highly enriched uranium for a reactor that Tehran says will run out of fuel by the end of the year.
Unlike the IAEA plan, brokered by former IAEA-chief Mohamed ElBaradei, the new proposal does not included detail on who would make the fuel rods, who will pay for the process and what will happen to the low-enriched uranium stored in Turkey after the swap has been completed, Western officials say.
Without this sort of information, they say they cannot begin serious negotiations on Iran’s offer, which many of them see as an attempt to stall sanctions negotiations.
Some Western officials say the Iranian move fits into a familiar pattern of Tehran offering concessions when punitive measures loom.
Diplomats also say that with its promotion of the new proposal, Iran is trying to give the impression that it was the fuel deal which was at the centre of problems with the West, rather than its nuclear ambitions as a whole.
They acknowledge that the original IAEA-plan was always intended as a first step towards resolving the nuclear issue, not a solution.
But they say Iran’s lack of cooperation with the agency on questions about its atomic programme and its delay in engaging on the fuel deal, have left negotiators feeling wary.
They also fear that Iran may go back on its word.
Talks over the original deal suffered from internal Iranian disputes. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad first appeared to favour the U.N. deal as a way to shore up his own power.
But he faced stiff opposition from rivals who did not want to see him reap credit for a breakthrough. Some voiced misgivings about parting with the nuclear material, which is seen as a strategic asset.
But analysts in Iran believe Ahmadinejad wouldn’t have agreed on this deal without the blessing of the supreme leader.
Editing by Jon Boyle