Secret Talks Progress on Illegal Iranian Nuclear Plant

President Barack Obama has a personal stake in the outcome of Monday's meeting in Vienna between Western and Iranian nuclear experts on the future of Iran's stockpile of low-enriched uranium. That's because, Administration sources tell TIME, Obama personally weighed in three times during secret, multiparty negotiations with the Iranians over the last four months - in what has become not just a test of Iran's nuclear intentions but also a test of Obama's effort to limit Iran's nuclear ambitions through a combination of sanctions, threats and incentives.

The backroom talks began in June, when Iranian officials told the International Atomic Energy Agency their country was running out of fuel for an aging research reactor built for the Shah in 1967 by American technicians. Iran sought the IAEA's help in buying more of the specially manufactured plates of enriched uranium used in the reactor to produce isotopes for cancer treatment, X-rays and insecticides. The IAEA, in turn, discussed the request with the U.S.

"We very quickly saw an opening here," says a senior Administration official involved in the multiparty negotiations that ensued, speaking on condition of anonymity. The U.S. realized it could arrange for the manufacture of the specialized plates from an unorthodox source: the stash of low-enriched uranium Iran has produced in violation of U.N. Security Council demands at its massive Natanz uranium-enrichment plant over the past several years. The U.S., Israel and others had estimated that the Iranian stockpile was enough - if Iran kicked out inspectors and repurposed its enrichment facilities to enrich uranium to weapons grade - to produce material for a single atom bomb. So, the idea that Iran might agree to send most of it abroad to be turned into harmless plates for the research reactor seemed an opportune way to defuse tensions.

In early July, Obama traveled to Moscow, where his top nonproliferation aide, Gary Samore, floated a proposal to the Russians: If Iran would agree to export a supply of LEU to Moscow, the Russians could enrich it to the level needed to power the research reactor, and then the French, who had been brought into the discussions, could turn it into the specialized plates that are used to produce the isotopes. The plates, which Iran does not have the capacity to turn into weapons-grade uranium, would then be sent back to Tehran. "The Russians immediately said, 'Great idea,' " says the senior Administration official.

What followed was a careful set of high-level negotiations between Iran, the IAEA, Russia, France and the U.S. to iron out details. In mid-September, Obama called the head of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei to inform him that the U.S. was willing to do the deal. ElBaradei then contacted the Iranian representative at the IAEA, who said he would have to check with his government, the senior Administration official says. Eventually the Iranians contacted ElBaradei to signal a willingness to deal.

The Americans wanted to make sure the Iranians weren't going to pull a fast one and persuade the Russians to get the material for the research-reactor fuel from a source other than Iran's own stockpile. When President Obama met with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in New York City at the U.N. General Assembly in late September, he pressed the Russian to "confirm at the level of the President that this whole deal hinged on it being Iran providing the fuel," says the senior Administration official. The official says Medvedev agreed.

Obama then had a further phone conversation with ElBaradei late in September to confirm the details of the deal, which was finally announced at the Oct. 1 Geneva talks between Iran and the key Western powers, Russia and China. At those talks, U.S. negotiator, William Burns, had a one-on-one conversation with his Iranian counterpart to confirm the amount of uranium involved in the deal, and they agreed to the Oct. 19 meeting to determine details of the transfer.

Despite the top-level diplomatic work, U.S. officials were not particularly optimistic ahead of Monday's meeting in Vienna. After years of failed talks they were prepared for stalling by Iran or a breakdown over details. Sunday's suicide bombing that killed some senior Revolutionary Guards officers, and which many in Tehran blame on a U.S. covert program to destabilize the regime through support for separatist groups, could cast a shadow over the nuclear talks. But both sides have reasons to seek progress: if the deal were to go forward, the U.S. would have succeeded in securing most of Iran's existing stockpile against weaponization. Iran, for its part, could see the deal as legitimizing their enrichment of uranium in violation of U.N. demands. In the best case, officials said, sealing details of the reactor agreement would raise a hope of further progress - which is more than there has been in some time.

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