US considers new, softened nuclear offer to Iran

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llustrative photo of centrifuges enriching uranium (photo credit: US Department of Energy/Wikimedia Commons)

UNITED NATIONS — The US is considering softening present demands that Iran gut its uranium enrichment program in favor of a new proposal that would allow Tehran to keep nearly half of the project intact while placing other constraints on its possible use as a path to nuclear weapons, diplomats told The Associated Press.

The initiative, revealed late Thursday, comes after months of nuclear negotiations between Iran and six world powers that have failed to substantially narrow differences over the future size and capacity of Tehran’s uranium enrichment program. Iran insists it does not want atomic arms but the West is only willing to lift nuclear-related sanctions if Tehran agrees to substantially shrink enrichment and other activities that Iran could turn toward making such weapons.

The US, which fears Tehran may enrich to weapons-grade level used to arm nuclear warheads, ideally wants no more than 1,500 centrifuges left operating. Iran insists it wants to use the technology only to make reactor fuel and for other peaceful purposes and insists it be allowed to run at least the present 9,400 machines.

The tentative new US offer attempts to meet the Iranians close to half way on numbers, said two diplomats who demanded anonymity because their information is confidential. They said it envisages letting Iran keep up to 4,500 centrifuges but would reduce the stock of uranium gas fed into the machines to the point where it would take more than a year of enriching to create enough material for a nuclear warhead.

That, they said, would give the international community enough lead time to react to any such attempt.

The diplomats emphasized that the proposal is only one of several being discussed by the six powers — the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — and has not yet been formally submitted to the Iranians.

Other ideas also include letting Iran have more than 1,500 machines but removing or destroying much of the infrastructure needed to make them run — wiring, pipes used to feed uranium gas and other auxiliary equipment.

Both ideas would allow the Iranians to claim that they did not compromise on vows that they would never emasculate their enrichment capabilities, while keeping intact American demands that the program be downgraded to a point where it could not be quickly turned to making bombs.

The new proposals reflect Washington’s desire to advance the talks ahead of a November 24 deadline that was extended from July. The current round began a week ago on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, leading to speculation that foreign ministers of the negotiating nations would join in the talks. But the diplomats said that was no longer planned because of the lack of substantial progress.

The fates of a reactor under construction near the city of Arak and of an underground enrichment facility at Fordo are also contentious issues. The US and its Western allies want the reactor converted to reduce to a minimum its production of plutonium, an alternate pathway to nuclear arms. And they insist that the Fordo plant be shuttered or used for something else than enrichment because it is fortified and thought to be impervious to air attacks.

Israel voiced vociferous objections to the reported American proposal.

Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said that Israel “strongly opposes leaving thousands of [uranium] centrifuges active in Iran,” adding that “this deal is reminiscent of the failed deal reached in 2007 with North Korea, which now possesses 10 nuclear warheads.”