GENEVA — Iran agreed in principle Thursday to ship most of its current stockpile of enriched uranium to Russia, where it would be refined for exclusively peaceful uses, in what Western diplomats called a significant, but interim, measure to ease concerns over its nuclear program.
The agreement was announced after seven and a half hours of talks in Geneva that included the highest-level official U.S.-Iranian encounter in three decades.
Iran also pledged that within weeks it would allow the inspection of a previously covert uranium enrichment facility near the holy city of Qom, and the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, announced that he'd head to Tehran to work out the details.
In Washington, President Barack Obama said the talks marked "a constructive beginning" and showed the promise of renewed engagement with Iran, but added that "going forward, we expect to see swift action. We're not interested in talking for the sake of talking."
Obama pointedly said that Iran must allow unfettered access to the Qom facility within "two weeks."
Envoys from Iran and the other nations that met here — the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany — agreed to reconvene before the end of October, raising prospects for sustained negotiations after 15 months of no talks and rising tensions.
Despite the hopeful signs, however, Iranian nuclear envoy Saeed Jalili gave no ground on demands that Tehran halt the enrichment of uranium, which can be used for both civilian nuclear power and nuclear weapons, according to U.S. and European officials who were present.
"The overall problem of Iran's nuclear program remains," said a senior U.S. official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity.
Indeed Iran, which insists it isn't seeking nuclear weapons, got much from the meeting: help with its ostensibly peaceful nuclear program, no concessions on the enrichment issue and an opportunity once again to put its aspirations for a major global role on display.
The Obama administration has reversed its predecessor's course and steadily reached out to Iran since taking office. But U.S. officials, along with Israel and many lawmakers on Capitol Hill, worry that Tehran will string out diplomacy with small concessions while it continues covert work toward fashioning a nuclear weapon.
During a lunch break at the villa outside Geneva where the diplomats gathered, Undersecretary of State William Burns, the State Department's No. 3 official, met for about 45 minutes with Jalili. At that session, which officials described as businesslike, Burns broached the Qom facility as well as Iran's human rights record, the senior U.S. official said.
In a separate exchange with the Iranians, another U.S. diplomat, who wasn't identified, raised the issue of three U.S. hikers that Iran took into custody after they strayed over the border from Iraq.
The U.S. broke diplomatic ties with Iran in early 1980, shortly after Islamic radicals seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November 1979 and took 66 Americans hostage, 52 of whom remained captive for 444 days.
There have been sporadic U.S.-Iranian contacts in the ensuing three decades, official and unofficial, secret and overt — but no one-on-one meetings at such a senior level as Thursday's.
Jalili, at a Geneva press conference later, made no mention of his meeting with Burns, repeated Iran's long-standing demands to nuclear technology as its "right," and said nations that already have nuclear weapon should disarm.
Under the tentative uranium deal, Iran would ship what a U.S. official said was "most" of its approximately 3,000 pounds of low-enriched uranium to Russia, where it would be further refined, to 19.75 percent purity. That is much less than the purity needed to fuel a nuclear bomb.
French technicians then would fabricate it into fuel rods and return it to Tehran to power a nuclear research reactor that's used to make isotopes for nuclear medicine. Iran says the old reactor, which dates from the Shah's era, is running out of nuclear fuel.
A second senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter's sensitivity, said that Iran doesn't have the technology to convert the fuel rods back into bomb-making material.
U.S. officials, who requested anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly, said the arrangement could set back the date by which Iran could acquire a nuclear weapon, because it had been feared Tehran would attempt to transform the same low-enriched uranium into the highly-enriched substance needed for a bomb. They said that Israel had been kept apprised of the deal.
The deal hinges, however, on Iran following through, as well as assurances that the country has no other covert nuclear facilities — which is again in question because of last week's revelation of the Qom site.
Iran agreed to the deal "in principle," U.S. officials said, and there's to be a meeting in Vienna on Oct. 18 to work out details.
During Thursday's talks, the U.S. and five other countries reiterated a June 2008 offer to halt the imposition of economic sanctions if Iran suspends its uranium enrichment program.
"We did not get a complete response today," said Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief.
Thursday's meeting between Burns and Jalili is the latest attempt by the Obama administration to engage Iran, which Washington also has threatened with "crippling" sanctions if it doesn't suspend the nuclear work.
The State Department allowed Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, to visit Washington on Wednesday, waiving regulations that usually confine Iranian diplomats within a 25-mile radius of the U.N. headquarters in New York. Mottaki didn't meet U.S. officials, but visited Iran's interests section, which is overseen by Pakistan, because the U.S. and Iran have no diplomatic relations.
The talks here took place at the Villa le Saugy, situated with a breathtaking view of the Swiss Alps and Lake Geneva. After a lunch that included trout almondine, creme brulee, wine and coffee, the diplomats scrapped a second planned formal session and huddled in small groups throughout the afternoon.
(Talev reported from Washington, Strobel from Geneva.)
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