In a potentially dramatic development, Iran is willing to close its uranium enrichment facility at Fordo in return for an easing of Western sanctions, the German news magazine Der Spiegel reported Monday.
Quoting intelligence sources, the magazine reported that Iran’s new president, Hasan Rouhani, might consider closing down the heavily fortified Fordo facility, near the holy city of Qom, and allow international observers to supervise the destruction of the centrifuges, if the West were to lift the sanctions regime it has placed on Iran’s oil industry and central bank. Rouhani could make the offer later this month at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the report said.
Iran’s reported willingness to compromise comes on the heels of a US-Russian deal to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, signed after Washington threatened military action against the regime of President Bashar Assad.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on the German report, but — based on its record — would likely reject such an Iranian overture as a ploy to blind the West and buy time while inching toward the bomb. In fact, a top minister in Jerusalem predicted a few weeks ago that Rouhani’s first move on the nuclear issue would entail an offer to halt enrichment in return for an easing of sanctions.
Israel’s long-standing demands have been that Iran halt all enrichment activity and remove all enriched nuclear material from its territory, as well as shut down Fordo and end plutonium production.
“We are determined to insist on our demands, which must be the demands of the international community,” Netanyahu said in July. “One, to stop all enrichment. Two, to remove all enriched material. Three, to close the illegal nuclear facility in Qom. We believe that now, more than ever, in light of Iran’s progress, it is important to intensify the economic sanctions and place a credible military option before Iran.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is scheduled to meet the European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton next Sunday in New York and will explain to her Tehran’s plan in greater detail, according to Der Spiegel. Rouhani’s expected move could set in motion a process of negotiations that would culminate in the resumption of diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States, the magazine wrote.
A willingness to compromise on the part of the new Iranian president would likely stem from the catastrophic state of Iran’s economy. Citing intelligence sources, Der Spiegel’s Erich Follath wrote that Iran could only avert national bankruptcy if the sanctions imposed by the international community were lifted and new money flowed into the country.
However, Follath also wrote, a possible deal with Iran could be tricky for the West, as it remains unclear who would monitor the dismantling of Fordo and whether Tehran’s 185 kilograms of already enriched uranium would also be subject to international control. It also remains to be seen what Iran intends to do about the reactor in Arak, which is expected to enrich plutonium that could be used in a nuclear weapon as early as 2014. “The Iranians, friend and foe will agree, are masters of tactical maneuvering,” Follath wrote.
Fordo, an underground fortified nuclear facility carved into a mountain south of Iran’s capital, was built in secret and only revealed by Western intelligence in 2009. Currently, Iranian scientists are enriching uranium there using 696 centrifuges.
On Sunday, US President Barack Obama warned Tehran that the Russian-brokered agreement to defer a planned Western strike in Syria should not be interpreted as a lack of willingness in Washington to pursue a military solution to the ongoing Iranian nuclear standoff.
“I think what the Iranians understand is that the nuclear issue is a far larger issue for us than the chemical weapons issue; that the threat… against Israel that a nuclear Iran poses is much closer to our core interests,” Obama said in an interview with ABC. “My suspicion is that the Iranians recognize they shouldn’t draw a lesson — that we haven’t struck [the Bashar Assad regime] — to think we won’t strike Iran.”
The president said that he had exchanged letters with Rouhani, but that the two had not spoken directly. He further said he believed Rouhani understood the potential for a diplomatic solution to his country’s disputed nuclear program, but would not “suddenly make it easy.”
“If you have both a credible threat of force, combined with a rigorous diplomatic effort,” Obama said, “you can strike a deal.”
The White House on Monday denied that Obama would be meeting Rouhani on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.
Obama’s statements about Iran’s nuclear program were echoed by Netanyahu Sunday after a meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Jerusalem.
“The world needs to ensure that radical regimes don’t have weapons of mass destruction because, as we’ve learned once again in Syria, if rogue regimes have weapons of mass destruction, they will use them,” Netanyahu said. “The determination the international community shows regarding Syria will have a direct impact on the Syrian regime’s patron, Iran. Iran must understand the consequences of its continual defiance of the international community, by its pursuit toward nuclear weapons…. If diplomacy has any chance of working, it must be coupled with a credible military threat.”
Israel’s Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz in August predicted that Rouhani would try to woo the West by offering to halt enrichment in return for a reduction of sanctions.
“He will come to the West, just like he did in 2003 [when Rouhani was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator], and say: ‘Let’s make an interim deal. I’ll make a few concessions here… you’ll make some concessions there,” Steinitz told The Times of Israel. “But after that, [Rouhani] will request reciprocity… it is extremely important not to give him this room to maneuver.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.