Page last updated at 15:47 GMT, Monday, 5 October 2009 16:47 UK

West mulls Iran 'change of heart'

By Jon Leyne
BBC Tehran correspondent

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and IAEA President Mohammed El Baradei in Tehran (4 Oct 2009)
A deal could make political sense for Mr Ahmadinejad at home

Iran is moving from confrontation to co-operation over its nuclear programme.

That is the positive analysis from Mohamed El Baradei, head of the UN nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, following his meetings in Tehran at the weekend.

Analysts have been trying to assess whether the Geneva meeting last Thursday between Iran and six of the world's major powers really marked a change of heart by Iran, or just a change of tactics.

Knocked off balance, perhaps, by the revelation of a new nuclear site at Qom, Iran seems to have agreed to a more direct engagement over its nuclear programme, despite many previous assertions by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that the issue was closed.

Western negotiators say they won two important agreements. Iran will allow inspectors to visit the controversial new plant later this month.

Tehran has also agreed in principle for a large part of the uranium it has already enriched at the Natanz plant to be shipped out of Iran. It would then be processed by Russia and France to a higher grade, for use in a research reactor in Tehran which produces medical isotopes.

It is that second agreement that has excited the West. A senior US administration official called it "a positive interim step to help build confidence".

If the deal is implemented, it could help at least to defer the crisis.

On the face of it, it looks almost too good to be true for Iran

Iran's enriched uranium would be converted into a form that would make it safe from being used to make nuclear bombs. For its part, Iran could claim that the deal would give a degree of legitimacy for its enrichment programme.

It would also make use of the enriched uranium, which has no immediate other peaceful purpose, as it is not suitable for use in the Bushehr reactor being built by the Russians.

The deal has also been packaged to make it as easy as possible for the Iranians to swallow.

The idea was put forward by the IAEA - which has kept better relations with Iran that the United States, Britain or France - and it pulls in Russia and France.

Focus shifted

It is notable, however, that Iran has made little or no public comment about the deal. Indeed, Iran's chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, seemed to be talking about a completely different set of negotiations when he spoke after the Geneva meeting - a set of talks which, from his perspective, focused on the architecture of global security.

Aerial view of suspected nuclear site at Qom, Iran

Do not be under any illusion there are plenty of realists within the Iranian system who are looking upon matters with a much more hard-headed approach.

And intriguingly Mr Ahmadinejad did drop in an unsolicited reference to the Tehran research reactor in an interview he made while he was in New York at the end of September, possibly a hint that back channel discussions were already in progress about this arrangement.

By agreeing to talk about this idea, Iran has already helped move the focus away from new sanctions, for which momentum was building after Russia appeared to lift its veto the week before last.

Tehran has also deflected pressure for an answer to the key question of whether it is prepared to freeze its nuclear programme.

According to the European envoy, Javier Solana, Iran has still to provide a "complete answer" to this question more than a year after the offer was first proposed.

The deal might also make domestic political sense for Mr Ahmadinejad, enabling him to postpone a confrontation over the nuclear issue while his government deals with the crisis over his disputed re-election.

The Obama administration has invested a lot of political capital in the 'hand of friendship' offered to Tehran

And there is nothing in the deal which prevents Iran from continuing to expand the uranium enrichment programme at Natanz, acquiring more enriched uranium, and developing know-how that could be used eventually to build a bomb.

On the face of it, it looks almost too good to be true for Iran. Yet things sometimes look rather different seen from Tehran.

Will President Ahmadinejad's government really permit a substantial part of the uranium enriched at Natanz to be shipped out to Russia - even if it is eventually to be returned in a higher concentration?

Playing for time?

First impression from Iranians watching the negotiation in Geneva were that it would be a hard sell back home.

US President Barack Obama in Washington DC (1 October 2009)
The US sometimes appears too keen to reach a deal with Iran

Despite Russia's involvement in building the Bushehr nuclear plant, the Russian government is viewed with deep suspicion by many in Iran, partly because if its history of involvement there, seen by many Iranians as every bit as perfidious as Britain's role.

Might hardliners not perceive this as a national humiliation, not to mention a possible trick, as Iran's hard won enriched uranium leaves the country for an uncertain future?

Does Mr Ahmadinejad really want the nuclear confrontation put into hibernation? He has used it at every turn to bolster his position, and he may feels he needs it now, more than ever, with the daily prospect of new demonstrations over his disputed re-election.

Iran's true position may become clearer when detailed talks about the deal open in Vienna on 19 October.

If this deal is to be pushed through in Tehran, it is likely to need pressure from the highest levels, probably a public endorsement from the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

Even then, the sceptics will only be convinced if and when the enriched uranium finally arrives on Russian soil.

Another ever present possibility is that Iran is simply playing for time, finding another means to postpone pressure for new sanctions, or even possible military intervention.

Map showing Iranian nuclear sites
Iran insists that all its nuclear facilities are for energy, not military purposes
Bushehr: Nuclear power plant
Isfahan: Uranium conversion plant
Natanz: Uranium enrichment plant, 4,592 working centrifuges, with 3,716 more installed
Second enrichment plant: Existence revealed to IAEA in Sept 2009. Separate reports say it is near Qom, and not yet operational
Arak: Heavy water plant

As for the West, if the deal is so good for Tehran, why would US President Barack Obama agree to it?

The problem for the US administration is that it has no clear alternative to the current diplomatic track with Iran.

The other options include the long slog towards a new set of sanctions that might not look very different from the current measures, the danger of other countries in the region seeking a nuclear bomb, or the perilous threat of military action from either the United States or Israel.

None looks very attractive.

The Obama administration has invested a lot of political capital in the "hand of friendship" offered to Tehran. At the very least, Washington wants to travel this path to the very end.

So on the one hand, Mr Obama is trying to keep up the pressure on Iran not to spin out the negotiations indefinitely.

On the other hand, sometimes the United States appears almost too keen to reach a deal with Iran, just at the moment the Iranian government may not be interested or able to deliver.

If that is the case, those in power in the Islamic Republic will sense it and will use it to their advantage. Perhaps they already have.

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