NEW YORK: The United States and its European allies are preparing a new, tougher deal over Iran’s nuclear program, in a first test of the weight of broader economic sanctions, The New York Times said Wednesday.
The offer would have Iran ship out more than 4,400 pounds (1,995 kilograms) of low-enriched uranium, more than two thirds the amount rejected by Tehran under a tentative deal struck in Vienna a year ago, senior officials told the daily.
The increase reflects Iran’s growing production of uranium over the past year and US concerns that Iran has less than one nuclear bomb’s worth of uranium on hand, according to the officials quoted in an article posted on the newspaper’s website and published in Thursday’s print edition.
"This will be a first sounding about whether the Iranians still think they can tough it out or are ready to negotiate," a senior American official told the newspaper.
"We have to convince them that life will get worse, not better, if they don’t begin to move."
Another senior US official said the United States and its European partners were "very close to having an agreement" to present to Iran.
But the Islamic republic has yet to respond to a request by EU foreign policy Chief Catherine Ashton, who represents world powers in the nuclear dialogue with Iran, to meet in Vienna in mid-November.
Top Iranian officials, including Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, welcomed the offer but have yet to present a formal response. And President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said negotiations were the only solution.
"The first thing we’re waiting for is a response from Iran," State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said.
He said the so-called P5+1 that groups the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia was prepared to discuss nuclear fuel swap proposals with the Islamic republic "if Iran is prepared to sit down and seriously debate."
"But at the same time, we need to have Iran come forward and demonstrate affirmatively that it’s living up to its obligations, and its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes," he added.
Should they take place as planned, the talks would be the first high-level meetings between Iran and the P5+1 since another round held October 1, 2009 in Geneva.
The Times said many US officials suspect the new initiative under development is likely to fail, but would fulfill US President Barack Obama’s promise to keep negotiating even while the pressure of sanctions increases.
Iran has signaled it is ready to discuss a possible exchange of atomic fuel at the upcoming talks for a Tehran-based research reactor after consultations broke down last year between the Islamic republic and the Vienna group comprising France, Russia, the United States and the UN atomic watchdog.
Under an initial proposal brokered by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran would send more than 2,600 pounds (1,200 kilograms) of its low-enriched uranium to Russia and France for conversion into the fuel rods required for the Tehran reactor.
In May, Iran responded by its own counter-proposal brokered by Turkey and Brazil, which was cold-shouldered by the West before the United Nations Security Council slapped a fresh round of sanctions on Tehran less than a month later. Several countries imposed further unilateral sanctions.
Meanwhile, Diplomacy is not enough to stop Iran developing nuclear weapons, the head of Britain’s foreign spy service said Thursday, urging an "intelligence-led" approach to stopping nuclear proliferation.
In an unprecedented public speech, MI6 chief John Sawers said that intelligence activities were responsible for Iran’s admission last year of a second enrichment plant, which in turn led to tougher diplomatic pressure.
"Stopping nuclear proliferation cannot be addressed purely by conventional diplomacy. We need intelligence-led operations to make it more difficult for countries like Iran to develop nuclear weapons," he said.