Iran Mutes French Clamor by Slowing Reactor, Freezing Expansion

Iran moved to quash doubts that it is ready to compromise in the decade-long deadlock over its nuclear work by slowing construction of a reactor and freezing expansion of uranium enrichment.

The Persian Gulf nation meets with world powers next week in Geneva, where it will seek to finalize details of a possible deal. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius helped kill an accord last week by insisting that construction at Arak, a heavy-water reactor that can produce plutonium, be stopped.

United Nations monitors reported yesterday that while work at Iran’s Arak heavy-water reactor didn’t stop, “no major components, such as the control room equipment, the refueling machine and reactor cooling pumps, had been installed.” Iranian estimates that it may start using the reactor next year are very optimistic, according to three senior diplomats familiar with Iran’s nuclear work, who asked not to be named because of the issue’s sensitivity.

“The Arak reactor project certainly does not keep me awake at night,” said Paul Pillar, who led a Central Intelligence Agency unit analyzing the Persian Gulf region, in an e-mailed reply to questions. “Any concern about Arak is not a good reason to derail a preliminary agreement with Iran, such as came close to being negotiated at Geneva.”

Fabius pledged last week not to sign up to a “fool’s bargain” with Iran and said that allowing the Islamic republic to continue construction at Arak would leave diplomats with a “fait accompli.”

Iran Signals

There are clear technical reasons not to be worried about Arak at this stage, said Robert Kelley, a U.S. nuclear engineer who led International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors in Iraq.

Iranian testing of the fuel that would go into Arak has been delayed and “suggest Iran is further from startup than they have announced,” Kelley said in an e-mail. “Construction of such a reactor complex requires engineering skills that are different from any that Iran will have.”

Iran stopped installing machinery to boost production at its uranium-enrichment facilities even as the stockpile of its most sensitive nuclear material grew to a record, the IAEA reported yesterday. The halt to expansion, which began following Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s August inauguration, is a signal that Iran is ready to compromise, the diplomats said.

President Barack Obama yesterday argued for offering Iran “modest” sanctions relief in exchange for progress on nuclear talks and urged Congress to hold off on imposing more economic penalties.

Criticism of Obama

Obama is facing criticism from U.S. lawmakers and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over a potential deal between world powers and Iran.

Netanyahu backs increasing sanctions pressure on Iran until it agrees to irreversibly give up its uranium enrichment operations, which could be used to produce fuel for nuclear weapons if the nation were to break out of international monitoring. Israel also wants construction terminated at the Arak reactor.

The next round of nuclear talks between Iranian officials and their counterparts from China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.K. and U.S. is foreseen on Nov. 21-22 in Geneva.

“We need to build political confidence in the peaceful nature of Iran’s intent,” said Scott Kemp, a professor at Princeton University who advised the State Department on nuclear-arms control, said in an e-mailed reply to questions. “Derailing a potential rapprochement on the basis of small technical details is short sighted.”

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