How Obama’s Secret Iran Talks Set Stage for a Nuclear Deal

How Obamas Secret Iran Talks Set Stage for a Nuclear Deal

President Barack Obama has a personal stake in the outcome of Monday’s
meeting in Vienna between Western and Iranian nuclear experts on the future
of Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium. That’s because, Administration
sources tell TIME, Obama personally weighed in three times during secret, multiparty
negotiations with the Iranians over the last four months — in what has become not just
a test of Iran’s nuclear intentions but also a test of Obama’s effort to
limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions through a combination of sanctions threats
and incentives.

The backroom talks began in June, when Iranian officials told the
International Atomic Energy Agency their country was running out of fuel for
an aging research reactor built for the Shah in 1967 by American
technicians. Iran sought the IAEA’s help in buying more of the specially
manufactured plates of enriched uranium used in the reactor to produce
isotopes for cancer treatment, x-rays and insecticides. The IAEA, in turn,
discussed the request with the U.S.

“We very quickly saw an opening here,” says a senior administration official
involved in the multi-party negotiations that ensued, speaking on condition
of anonymity. The U.S. realized it could arrange for the manufacture of the
specialized plates from an unorthodox source: the stash of low-enriched
uranium Iran has produced in violation of U.N. Security Council demands at
its massive Natanz uranium enrichment plant over the past several years. The
U.S., Israel and others had estimated that the Iranian stockpile was enough
— if Iran kicked out inspectors and repurposed its enrichment facilities
to enrich uranium to weapons grade — to produce material for a single
atom bomb. So, the idea that Iran might agree to send most of it
abroad to be turned into harmless plates for the research reactor seemed an opportune way to defuse tensions.

In early July, Obama traveled to Moscow, where his top non-proliferation
aide, Gary Samore, floated a proposal to the Russians: If Iran would agree
to export a supply of LEU to Moscow, the Russians could enrich it to the
level needed to power the research reactor, and then the French, who had
brought into the discussions, could turn it into the specialized
plates that are used to produce the isotopes. The plates, which Iran does
not have the capacity to turn into weapons grade uranium, would then be sent
back to Tehran. “The Russians immediately said, ‘Great idea,’ ” says the
senior administration official.

What followed was a careful set of high-level negotiations between Iran, the
IAEA, Russia, France and the U.S. to iron out details. In mid-September,
Obama called the head of the IAEA, Mohammad ElBaradei to inform him that the
U.S. was willing to do the deal. ElBaradei then contacted the Iranian
representative at the IAEA, who said he would have to check with his
government, the senior administration official says. Eventually the Iranians
contacted ElBaradei to signal a willingness to deal.

The Americans wanted to make sure the Iranians weren’t going to pull a fast
one and persuade the Russians to get the material
for the research-reactor fuel from a source other than Iran’s own stockpile.
When President Obama met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in New York
at the U.N. General Assembly in late September, he pressed the Russian to
“confirm at the level of the president that this whole deal hinged on it
being Iran providing the fuel,” says the senior administration official. The official
says Medvedev agreed.

Obama then had a further phone conversation with ElBaradei late in September
to confirm the details of the deal, which was finally announced at the
October 1 Geneva talks between Iran and the key Western powers, Russia and
China. At those talks, U.S. negotiator, William Burns, had a one-on-one
conversation with his Iranian counterpart to confirm the amount of uranium
involved in the deal, and they agreed to the Oct. 19 meeting to
determine details of the transfer.

Despite the top-level diplomatic work, US officials were not particularly optimistic ahead of Monday’s meeting in Vienna. After years of failed talks they were prepared for stalling by Iran or a breakdown over details. Sunday’s suicide bombing that killed some senior Revolutionary Guards officers, and which many in Tehran blame on a U.S. covert program to destabilize the regime through support for separatist groups, could cast a shadow over the nuclear talks. But both sides have reasons to seek progress: if the deal were to go forward, the U.S. would have succeeded in securing most of Iran’s existing stockpile against weaponization. Iran, for its part, could see the deal as legitimizing their enrichment of uranium in violation of U.N. demands. In the best case, officials said, sealing details of the reactor agreement would raise a hope of further progress — which is more than there has been in some time.

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