Diplomats Call First Day of Iran-Nuke Talks Inconclusive
International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei said the negotiations between Iran and the U.S., Russia and France got off to a "good start." However, three diplomats, who were familiar with the discussions, suggested little was accomplished outside of both sides outlining their positions.
Iran had signaled going into the meeting that it would not meet Western demands for a deal under which it would ship most of its enriched material out of the country. Tehran has said it needs enriched uranium for nuclear fuel. The West fears it could be used to make weapons, and the U.S. says Iran is one to six years away from being able to do so.
The talks were focused on a technical issue with huge strategic ramifications -- whether Iran is ready to farm out some of its uranium enrichment program to a foreign country.
ElBaradei appeared cautiously optimistic after the closed meetings, saying most technical issues had been discussed and the parties would meet again Tuesday morning.
"We have had this afternoon quite a constructive meeting," ElBaradei told reporters. "We are off to a good start."
ElBaradei did not elaborate, but his upbeat interpretation was in line with his stated preference for negotiations over sanctions and other tough measures for dealing with the issue.
One diplomat said the talks were "not as good as ElBaradei said, but good enough to have them continue." Another cautioned against qualifying the discussions, noting that they were in a very early stage.
The delegations said little as they left the meeting. The chief Iranian delegate, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said only that he endorsed ElBaradei's comments.
Despite ElBaradei's upbeat assessment, the diplomats said Iran would not elaborate on whether it was ready to ship its enriched material out of the country. They said Tehran had asked questions about the plan put forward by the U.S., Russia and France.
Iran, which holds a 10 percent share in a Eurodif nuclear plant in France, also criticized President Nicolas Sarkozy's government for withholding enriched uranium from that facility, the diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks were confidential.
Areva, the state-run French nuclear company, has described Iran as a "sleeping partner" in Eurodif, which Tehran bought into more than three decades ago. Iran is under three sets of U.N. Security Council sanctions for defying demands that it freeze enrichment. The sanctions include embargoes on all shipments of sensitive nuclear materials or technology.
Before the meeting, Iran's state-run Press TV had cited unidentified officials in Tehran as saying the Islamic Republic was looking to keep its low-enriched uranium and buy what it needed for the Tehran reactor abroad. One said Iran was looking to the U.S., Russia or France for such supplies -- a stance that would likely doom the talks, with neither the U.S. nor France expected to accept anything short of an Iranian commitment to ship out its own material for further enrichment.
Tehran's continued refusal to give up most of its enriched stock could also abort chances of a second round of broader negotiations between Iran and the U.S., Britain, Russia, France, Germany and China. The first round was held Oct. 1 in Geneva.
The six powers have tentatively scheduled a follow-up meeting by the end of the month aimed at starting negotiations that will ultimately place strict controls on Iran's enrichment activities.
Iran's interlocutors were trying Monday to implement what the West says Tehran had agreed to in Geneva: letting a foreign country, most likely Russia, turn most of Iran's low-enriched uranium into higher grades to fuel its small research reactor in Tehran.
That would mean turning over more than 2,600 pounds (1,200 kilograms) of low-enriched uranium -- as much as 75 percent of Iran's declared stockpile. Tentative plans would be for further enrichment in Russia and then conversion in France into metal fuel rods for Iran's reactor.
Iran agreeing to ship most of its enriched uranium abroad would be significant in easing Western fears about Iran's program, since 2,205 pounds (1,000 kilograms) is the commonly accepted threshold of the amount of low-enriched uranium needed for production of weapons-grade uranium enriched to levels above 90 percent.
Based on the present Iranian stockpile, the U.S. has estimated that Tehran could produce a nuclear weapon between 2010 and 2015, an assessment that broadly agrees with those from Israel and other nations tracking Tehran's nuclear program.
If most of Iran's declared stock is taken out of the country, further enriched abroad and then turned into fuel for Iran's reactor, any effort to make nuclear weapons would be delayed until Tehran again has enriched enough material to turn into weapons-grade uranium.
David Albright of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, which has tracked Iran for signs of covert proliferation, said any such deal would buy only a limited amount of time, noting that Tehran could replace even 2,600 pounds (1,200 kilograms) of low-enriched uranium "in little over a year." Iran now has more than 4,000 centrifuges producing low-enriched uranium, and its capacities are increasing.
Tehran, if it agrees to ship out the enriched uranium, could also resist pressure to hand over most of its stock in one batch, and instead seek to send small amounts at a time. Iran has enough fuel for the Tehran reactor to last until mid-2011.