The major powers plan to offer to ease sanctions
barring trade in gold
and other precious metals with Iran in return for Iranian steps to shut down the nation's newly expanded Fordo uranium enrichment plant, Western officials said on Friday.
The officials said the offer is to be presented to Iran
at February 26 talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan,
and they acknowledged that it represents a relatively modest update to proposals that the six major powers put forward last year.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the officials said their decision not to make a dramatically new offer in part reflected skepticism that Iran is ready to make a deal ahead of its June 14 presidential election.
The group, which includes Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States
– and is known as the P5+1 – wants Iran to do more to prove that its nuclear program is for only non-military purposes and to permit wider UN inspections.
Iran denies it is seeking nuclear weapons
but has refused, in recent years, to halt its uranium enrichment, a process that can produce fuel for nuclear reactors or, ultimately, for bombs.
Israel, which views a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat, has raised the possibility of taking military action to halt the Iranian atomic program.
While stressing he wants to resolve the dispute with Iran through diplomacy, US President Barack Obama
on Tuesday repeated a veiled military threat, saying "we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon."
The core of the new offer revises last year's demand that Iran stop producing higher-grade uranium,
ship any stockpiles out of the country and close down its underground enrichment facility at Fordo, near the holy Iranian city of Qom.
"The next proposal is remarkably close to the old one," said one official who spoke on condition of anonymity, describing it as "a way to test whether they are serious or not."
"We don't think the Iranians have given us reason to do much more," he said. "It's basically an update…. so it does require a little bit more from Iran in terms of cooperation with the (International Atomic Energy Agency) and at Fordo."
According to the IAEA's November report, Iran has increased the number of centrifuges at Fordo
and the facility has been enriching uranium with one quarter of the total, or 696, centrifuges.
Western diplomats say Iran is technically ready to sharply expand enrichment at Fordo but that, as of last week, it was not believed to have done so.
Western officials said their new demands take into account the advances at Fordo as well as their desire that Iran cooperate more broadly with the IAEA, the UN nuclear watchdog.
While declining to provide exact details on what the P5+1 members would demand of Iran, a second Western official said the group wanted the steps to "build in buffer time" to ensure that it would take Iran "more time to restart Fordo."
"We use very careful wording such as 'decreasing readiness of Fordo'. These are face-saving words," this official said.
The added inducement for Iran in the new offer is to suspend sanctions on trade in gold and precious metals, something that could be used as part of barter transactions that might allow Iran to circumvent increasingly tight financial sanctions.
The Western officials described their new proposal as "more for more" – meaning that they are seeking more steps to curtail Iran's nuclear program
in exchange for greater inducements on their part, but they admitted it is not a dramatic shift.
"It's still more for more, (but) not much more," said the second Western official.
Iran has so far been unwilling to embrace any of the P5+1's offers, including one made in October 2009 under which Iran would ship out much of its enriched uranium in exchange for fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor that produces medical isotopes.
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