Iran's new nuclear proposal

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MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman. And this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. Things got murky today in the international negotiations over Iran's nuclear program. The United States and other countries are waiting to hear if Iran will accept a UN proposal. It would reduce Iran's stockpiles of enriched uranium by sending some of it to Russia for processing. Instead of responding to that plan, Iran seemed to put forth a new proposal, through a statement on state-run TV. Borzou Daragahi is following the story. He's Middle East correspondent for The Los Angeles Times, and is speaking to us from Beirut. Borzou, what's this new proposal from Iran and how did it come out?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: Well, I can't say that it's a new proposal. There was an anonymous comment on state television, attributed to an official involved in the nuclear negotiations. And what they're saying is I think something that would be totally unacceptable to the west and to Russia as well, which is, instead of shipping the bulk of their enriched uranium abroad for processing, further refinement and formatting for medical purposes, they would instead buy that further enriched uranium on the international market, using the IAEA as a conduit. On the other hand, it could just be a trial balloon. It could be an extreme position, staked out in the media so that people will be relieved when Iran comes with another kind of counter proposal, which is more likely. It's often a frustrating experience. As one diplomat told me, the real negotiation with Iran often begins after the agreement has been signed.

WERMAN: So Iran would have, according to the UN plan, shipped its uranium to Russia and France for refinement. They now say they prefer to buy its enriched uranium directly. Are there actually sources from which you could buy like a pound of uranium if you wanted to?

DARAGAHI: Well, sure. I mean, there's an international market for this kind of stuff. If you're in the medical business, cancer treatment or something like that, and you are relying on these kinds of isotopes for diagnosis and treatment of cancer, you have to get it from somewhere, and there are in fact suppliers, heavily regulated, overseen by governments and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

WERMAN: So in this limbo state between the western players the IAEA and Iran, I mean, without an agreement, is Iran kind of now free until there's a concrete signed agreement to develop more enriched uranium?

DARAGAHI: Well, regardless of whether this agreement would have gone through or not, Iran was going to continue to produce enriched uranium in defiance of five UN Security Council resolutions, so that's not really the issue here. What I think is kind of interesting is that what might be going on right now is a heavy, heated internal discussion among the various players in Iran, and that's why you're not getting anything definitive yet, is because they haven't really decided what to do, and they're kind of fighting it out among themselves. That adheres to previous behavior patterns with regard to Iran on such sensitive matters.

WERMAN: Just clarify for us finally, Borzou, Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, but at this point, is there anything keeping Iran from developing nuclear warheads if it wants to? I mean, there are no checks or controls other than what they actually let the International Atomic Energy Agency see. Is that correct?

DARAGAHI: Well, I think that's a pretty big thing. That's a pretty big check and control. Iran remains under international inspection. It is a signatory to the non proliferation treaty. Its nuclear facilities are under IAEA surveillance, and even the one secret facility that was uncovered recently, Iran argues that it had not introduced nuclear material into that facility and so it was under no obligation to reveal it to international inspectors. So according to their own rules, they're operating within the word of the law of international treaty obligations. You know, I think that there's that big question: does Iran have a parallel program outside of the sight of inspectors in which it is pursuing more explicitly a weapons capability?

WERMAN: Borzou Daragahi reports from the Middle East for The Los Angeles Times. Borzou, as always, thank you.

DARAGAHI: It's been a pleasure.