Iran and China are engaged in secret negotiations for the purchase of uranium enriched to 19.75 percent,DEBKA-Net-Weekly intelligence sources report. This acquisition would enable Tehran to beat US-led international pressure to send two-thirds of its 3.5 percent abroad, removing from Iran at least 1,200 kilograms of its enriched uranium reserve, although it has probably secretly stocked much more.
Tehran failed in its bid for a similar purchase for its Amir-Abad reactor afterWashington interceded with the Kazakh government.
Our sources report that Beijing in contrast is seriously considering the offer made by two top Iranian Atomic Energy Commission officials who visited Beijing in early January. The Chinese condition is that the highly-enriched uranium purchased is spirited into Tehran and its source obliterated so as to be undetectable, but they have not given a final answer as yet.
Beijing is sorely tempted by the offer of payment in the form of five million barrels of Iranian oil upon conclusion of the deal along with a long-term commitment to provide keep it supplied with crude. The Chinese are nonetheless hesitant, fearful of the international outrage the deal would evoke, so the Iranian negotiators went home and reported Beijing was waiting to hear what else Tehran was willing to put on the table.
China seeks to calm Iran's concerns
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources at the nuclear watchdog agency in Vienna, China is concerned not only with its reward for the deal but its desire to start lowering international temperatures over the Iranian nuclear program. The climate of crisis weighs heavily on Beijing's diplomatic relations, particularly withWashington and is an obstacle to enhancing its position in the Middle East.
Policy-makers in Beijing are convinced that once Tehran acquires highly-enriched uranium and feels able to trust China for backing on its nuclear dispute with the West, the ayatollahs will be more flexible in their dialogue with the world powers. This approach also marked Beijing's policy on North Korea.
It also accounts for the fresh signs that the nuclear swap proposal of low-enriched uranium (LEU) for a higher grade material is back on the table.
Although Tehran failed to meet President Barack Obama's end-of-year deadline for its response to this proposal, both Iranian and US official sources indicated thatTehran has formally replied after all. According to Iranian news reports, the foreign ministry in Tehran has given the international community a two-month deadline to respond to its counter-proposal before applying its own resources.
Our sources point to this “nuclear chatter” as meant to conceal secret encounters between American and Iranian representatives in Vienna with a view to reviving their diplomatic engagement.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources in Washington disclose that the under-the table talks are orchestrated by the Gary Samore, head of the National Security Council's nuclear desk and Ali Soltaniyeh, Iran's representative to the international atomic agency.
Iran is driven by fresh technical snags
On Saturday, January 9, the director of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi said: "Although we informed the IAEA in advance that our centrifuges are set up so as not to enrich uranium to over 5 percent, we do have the right to enrich uranium to a level of up to 100%, and we will always have this right. Enrichment to a level of 20 percents also within our rights, but we prefer to obtain the [nuclear] fuel from abroad."
He did not say which foreign country he was referring to as supplier.
Our Iranian sources reveal that Tehran is suddenly anxious to purchase 20-percent grade uranium aborad because its enrichment program has run into serious snags.
Their original plan was to exploit overseas supplies from Russia and France for the acquisition of uranium enriched to a higher grade than their own 3.5 percent. But after encountering technical glitches, Iran concluded that rather than letting its own supply reach foreign hands, it would be better to buy what it need from a friendly nation.
The Iranians are now leaning hard on Beijing for a swift reply to their offer.
Ali Akhbar Salehi badgered senior Chinese nuclear officials this week with repeated phone calls, while foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki invited the Chinese ambassador for a heart-to-heart talk on the importance to their bilateral relations of his government's affirmative response.