WASHINGTON - Although the Barack Obama administration continued to dismiss the May 17 Iranian fuel swap agreement Friday, there are indications that Iran's move has shaken the agreement among U.N. Security Council members on sanctions, and is bringing Russian diplomatic pressure on the United States to participate in new talks with Iran on the swap arrangement - something the administration clearly wished to avoid.
In a hastily arranged conference call with reporters Friday afternoon, three "senior administration officials" assailed the new swap agreement, brokered by Brazil and Turkey, for failing to address what was described as Iran's decision to continue enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, the increase in Iran's low-enriched uranium (LEU) stocks since last October, or U.N. Security resolutions demanding a suspension of all enrichment.
In a telltale sign that the Iranian move has shaken the previous unity among the permanent Security Council members on sanctions, however, one of the officials sidestepped a question about the present stance of Russia and China on sanctions.
Far from expressing confidence that the agreement still held, the official would only say, "We've been working with the full Council to resolve any outstanding issues."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced an agreement on a draft resolution on sanctions within hours of the May 17 announcement of the Iranian fuel swap agreement in Tehran.
An article published on Xinhua News Agency Saturday by Zhai Dequan, the deputy secretary-general of China's Arms Control and Disarmament Association, appears to signal that China is backing out of the previous agreement on sanctions against Iran.
Citing Iran's agreement to the specifics of the swap deal, the article concluded, "Since the situation has changed, pre-planned punitive actions, too, should be altered accordingly, meaning there is no longer any rationality in imposing further sanctions on Iran."
The views expressed by the association have often reflected the policies of the Chinese foreign ministry, which had already issued a statement welcoming Iran's agreement on the swap proposal.
In remarks to reporters Thursday reported by RTT News, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow "welcomes" the fuel swap deal. "The arrangement serves the interests of settling the Iranian nuclear problem," Lavrov said, "and, therefore, we believe everything should be done to implement it."
Lavrov said Russia was talking with Brazil and Turkey, as well as with the U.S. and France, on how to implement the swap deal.
The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement Friday, also reported by RTT News, confirming that Lavrov had a phone conversation with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki on Thursday. Summarising the conversation, it said, "Russia expressed its readiness to actively support the advancement of the process of negotiation aimed at resolving the situation surrounding the Iranian nuclear programme."
Mottaki was meanwhile expressing confidence Friday that the "Vienna Group" (the United States, Russia, France and the International Atomic Energy Agency) would reconvene to work out the details of the swap proposal Iran had communicated to the IAEA.
Speaking to reporters at an economic forum in Bulgaria, Mottaki said he had spoken to Lavrov by phone Thursday about the fuel swap plan. "[T]to my understanding, I think the Vienna Group are considering [it] positively," said Mottaki.
"As soon as their response to [IAEA Director General Yukiya] Amano comes, I think negotiations will start," he added.
A website associated with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Raja News, claimed Friday that Obama had ordered Clinton to send a representative to Vienna for another meeting with Iran on the details of the swap proposal within three weeks.
The site said the U.S. aim at the meeting would be to ask Iran to halt the enrichment of uranium to 20 percent that had begun in February.
In the conference call Friday, one official emphasised the U.S. complaint that Iran is enriching uranium to 20 percent to provide fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor, which is used to make medical isotopes. The official alleged that, after the May 17 agreement, "the head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran said that even if the deal... materialises, Iran will continue to enrich at the 20-percent level..."
But that allegation was based on the interpretation of Ali Akbar Salehi's remarks to Reuters in the lead of the May 17 story. A careful reading of the actual statements quoted in the story support a very different interpretation.
What Salehi said was, "There is no relationship between the swap deal and our enrichment activities," by which he appears to have meant that Iran was not obliged under the swap deal to change its enrichment activities in general.
Salehi also said, "We will continue our 20 percent enrichment." He did not specify that the enrichment would continue even after an agreement was reached to provide fuel rods for the Tehran Research Reactor.
In another case of apparent misinterpretation, the Washington Post quoted Ramin Mehmanparast, Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman, as saying on May 17, "Of course, enrichment of uranium to 20 percent will continue inside Iran."
But the IRNA English language story says, "Talking to reporters, Mehmanparast said that of course, Iran will continue 20 percent enrichment in the duration." The context of the remark was the announcement by Mehmanparast that Iran would "ship fuel to Turkey in a month in case of the Vienna group readiness and conclusion of a deal between Iran and the group". The phrase "in the duration" thus appeared to refer to the period up to such a deal.
In February, when the enrichment to 20 percent began, Salehi and other Iranian officials clearly stated that the enrichment would stop if and when the fuel rods were supplied.
The more ambiguous statements by Salehi and Mehmanparast after Iran's agreement to the original U.S.-IAEA swap proposal suggest a desire to force the Obama administration to negotiate with Iran over the issue of when that enrichment would end.
The State Department's spokesman P. J. Crowley asserted on May 20 that the United States would not negotiate further with Iran unless Iran first agreed to discuss suspension of all enrichment activities.
The diplomatic maneuvering of the past week suggests, however, that the Obama administration may be forced to meet with Iran without any promise to talk about a general suspension of enrichment.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in 2006.