TEHRAN // Domestic opposition to the International Atomic Energy Agency's draft proposal for sending Iran's low grade uranium to Russia and France for enrichment is growing, while the United States, France and Russia say they support the plan. The IAEA proposal would have Iran ship about 80 per cent of its 3.5 per cent enriched uranium to Russia for further enrichment and then to France, where it would be converted into fuel rods.
The speaker of parliament and former top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, said on Saturday there was no sound rationale or legal foundation for the western powers' demand that Iran should give away its low enriched uranium in return for nuclear fuel for its research reactor in Tehran. Western governments suspect that the 1,500 kilograms of low enriched uranium Iran already has can be further enriched to make nuclear warheads.
The research reactor - which produces isotopes for medical purposes - will soon run out of fuel. Mr Larijani also said that the western powers are moving towards a position of "cheating" Iran and "imposing things on the country". The same criticism was levelled by the vice speaker, Mohammad Reza Bahonar, and several other prominent lawmakers, including Allaedin Boroujerdi, the head of the parliament's national security and foreign policy committee.
"We should be thinking what to do if their aim is to provoke us [by such a demand]," Mr Bahonar said. In early October, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran was prepared to ship out 3.5 per cent enriched uranium to other countries for further enrichment a day before talks between Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, and representatives of the so-called P5-plus-one - the five permanent members of the UN security council and Germany - were held in Geneva.
Mr Ahmadinejad has not yet commented on the IAEA proposal and despite a Friday deadline set by the agency's chief, Mohammad ElBaradei, Iran's ambassador to the UN nuclear watchdog, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said on Friday that Iran needed until the middle of this week to assess the proposal. Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who has the final say in all state matters, has also not made any comments or reference to the proposed IAEA deal.
Critics of the proposal say there is no reason Iran should give away most of its 3.5 per cent enriched uranium for further enrichment when the country can hold on to its stockpile and simply purchase the nuclear fuel it needs for the reactor. "We have a nuclear reactor in Tehran and according to the IAEA regulations they are obliged to provide us with fuel for it," Mr Larijani said, with reference to the provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), of which Iran is also a signatory.
Fuel rods for the Tehran reactor can only be produced in France and Argentina due to the design of the reactor. A diplomatic row between Iran and Argentina following the appointment of Ahmad Vahidi as defence minister - who is wanted by Argentina for his alleged participation in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural centre in Buenos Aires - has ruled out the Argentine option. Mr Larijani also alleged that the US was conspiring behind the scenes with other western powers to cheat Iran out of its 3.5 per cent enriched uranium by turning it into fuel rods.
"If turned into fuel rods our enriched uranium can no longer be processed or used for scientific research," an unnamed nuclear expert was quoted as saying by Ayandeh News, a conservative news portal. It will take at least 18 months to replenish the stockpile by the existing centrifuges, Iranian experts say. Iranian officials say that under the NPT it is entitled to enrich uranium up to 20 per cent and is capable of doing so. To make nuclear weaopns, uranium should be enriched to at least 93 per cent.
Some critics of the proposal consider the existing stockpile of enriched uranium a bargaining chip in Iran's hands in the diplomatic game against western powers. "Handing out 80 per cent of Iran's enriched uranium is in a way destroying the country's deterrence power and taking away its winning card. The other parties [in the enrichment deal] may refuse to grant any privileges in return and increase the pressure in order to get more," the expert quoted by Ayandeh News said.
"It is very naive to believe that the US, Britain and France... want to solve our [fuel] problem by converting [the Iranian enriched uranium hexafloride] gas to fuel rods. They are actually pursuing the same goals that they were not able to reach through UN resolutions and sanctions," the expert said. firstname.lastname@example.org