WASHINGTON — With harsh economic sanctions contributing to the first major protests in Iran in three years, Iranian officials have begun to describe what they call a “nine-step plan” to defuse the nuclear crisis with the West by gradually suspending the production of the uranium that would be easiest for them to convert into a nuclear weapon.
But the plan requires so many concessions by the West, starting with the dismantling of all the sanctions that are blocking oil sales and setting off the collapse of the Iranian currency, that American officials have dismissed it as unworkable. Nonetheless, Iranian officials used their visit to the United Nations last week to attempt to drum up support, indicating that the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is finally feeling the pressure.
“Within the intelligence community, I think it’s fair to say that there is split opinion about whether the upper level of the regime is getting seriously worried,” one senior intelligence official said when asked why the Iranians appeared to be backing away from their earlier stand that nothing would stop them from producing more medium-enriched uranium, which can be turned into bomb fuel in a matter of months.
“He’s erratic, and we’ve seen him walk up to the edge of deals before and walk away,” the official said, referring to Ayatollah Khamenei.
The Iranian plan is based on a proposal made to European officials in July. It essentially calls for a step-by-step dismantling of the sanctions while the Iranians end work at one of two sites where they are enriching what is known as “20 percent uranium.” Only when the Iranians reach step No. 9 — after all the sanctions are gone and badly depressed oil revenues have begun to flow again — would there be a “suspension” of the medium-enriched uranium production at the deep underground site called Fordow.
Obama administration officials say the deal is intended to generate headlines, but would not guarantee that Iran cannot produce a weapon. “The way they have structured it, you can move the fuel around, and it stays inside the country,” a senior Obama administration official said. “They could restart the program in a nanosecond. They don’t have to answer any questions from the inspectors” about evidence that they conducted research on nuclear weapons technology, but nonetheless would insist on a statement from the agency that all issues have been resolved.
“Yet we’re supposed to lift sanctions that would take years to reimpose, if we could get countries to agree,” the administration official said.
The United States has not put a formal offer on the table. But the outline of a way to a solution they described to Iranian officials before the summer is almost the mirror image of the Iranian nine-step proposal.
Under the American vision, Iran would halt all production of its 20 percent enriched uranium immediately, ship the existing stockpile out of the country and close the Fordow plant. That would defuse the threat of an Iranian “breakout” to produce a weapon, leaving the Iranians with a stockpile of low-enriched uranium that would require far more lengthy processing to weaponize.
Then the United States and its allies would offer some cooperation on civilian nuclear projects, and would agree not to add new sanctions at the United Nations Security Council. But the sanctions squeezing the Iranian economy would remain in place until a final deal is reached.
To the Iranians, this is a prescription for government change, and they insist it will fail. “I ask you sincerely, can anyone go to war with Iran,” even an economic war, and “come out a victor?” President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said last week during a meeting with a half-dozen authors who have written books about Iran. “Why does the U.S. believe she can prevail?”
Yet Mr. Ahmadinejad declined to talk about the current negotiations. Instead, to the astonishment of Iranian officials, he argued at the session that the Iranian people were better off economically than they had been when he came to office. Since Mr. Ahmadinejad’s return to Tehran, Iranian officials have begun looking for any signs that their proposal, although rejected by Washington, could represent the basis of a conversation.
So far, it is difficult to find much overlap between the American and Iranian proposals. Both countries want to retain leverage, so the Iranians believe it is essential to keep the capability to produce uranium, and they reject any proposals to dismantle the nuclear infrastructure they have built, which they say is for civilian use. Similarly, the Americans, Europeans and Israelis believe they must maintain the constant pressure of sanctions.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made it clear that the United States had no intention of relaxing the sanctions — particularly now, just as they show the first sign of forcing Iran’s leaders to rethink the costs of their nuclear program.
“We have always said that we had a dual-track approach to this, and one track was trying to put pressure on the Iranian government to come to the negotiating table,” Mrs. Clinton told reporters. But she said it was Iran’s own mismanagement of its economy, more than the sanctions, that deserved “responsibility for what is going on inside Iran.”
“And that is who should be held accountable,” Mrs. Clinton said. “And I think that they have made their own government decisions, having nothing to do with the sanctions that have had an impact on the economic conditions inside the country.”
THE NEW YORK TIMES