Tehran and the European Union appear poised to reach an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program that would obviate the need for sanctions, diplomats affiliated with the International Atomic Energy Agency told Haaretz on Monday night. But a senior Israeli defense official was skeptical about the tentative agreement, saying it appeared to be just another Iranian effort to buy time to advance its nuclear program. “I am still very much hopeful that in the next week an agreement could be reached,” IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei also told reporters Monday, without elaborating. Under the emerging deal, Iran would declare a moratorium on most uranium enrichment, and would instead receive slightly enriched uranium suitable for civilian usage from Russia. However, it would be allowed to continue operating a cascade of some 20 centrifuges that it restarted at its Natanz facility about two months ago.
Such a small cascade would make it virtually impossible for Iran to enrich sufficient uranium for a nuclear weapon. Nevertheless, many experts, especially in Israel, argue that allowing Iran to operate even a small cascade would enable it to work out all the technical bugs of uranium enrichment, after which it could begin large-scale production in secret. Thus, the proposal still enables Tehran to move forward with its nuclear program, the senior Israeli official said, and therefore, Israel would prefer to see the UN Security Council impose sanctions. Until recently, this was also the European and U.S. position: Last Friday, when an Iranian negotiator raised a virtually identical proposal at a meeting with senior French, British and German officials, the Europeans, backed by the U.S., rejected it. The EU said that Iran must completely cease uranium enrichment, while Larijani said that Iran would accept a temporary moratorium on large-scale enrichment, but insisted on being allowed to proceed with research into the enrichment process. Now, however, the Europeans and United States appear to have reversed themselves. At the opening session of the IAEA’s board of governors’ meeting Monday, agency director general Mohamed ElBaradei said that he was very hopeful that an agreement would be reached in the coming week, and even U.S. officials struck an unusually conciliatory note on Iran in their briefing for reporters Monday. The board is scheduled to discuss Iran’s nuclear program on Tuesday. In light of the negotiations, however, this discussion may be postponed.