LAUSANNE, Switzerland - The United States is considering letting Tehran run hundreds of centrifuges at a once-secret, fortified underground bunker in exchange for limits on centrifuge work and research and development at other sites, officials have told the Associated Press.
The trade-off would allow Iran to run several hundred of the devices at its Fordo facility, although the Iranians would not be allowed to do work that could lead to an atomic bomb and the site would be subject to international inspections, according to Western officials familiar with details of negotiations now underway. In return, Iran would be required to scale back the number of centrifuges it runs at its Natanz facility and accept other restrictions on nuclear-related work.
Instead of uranium, which can be enriched to be the fissile core of a nuclear weapon, any centrifuges permitted at Fordo would be fed elements such as zinc, xenon, or germanium for separating out isotopes used in medicine, industry, or science, the officials said. The number of centrifuges would not be enough to produce the amount of uranium needed to make a weapon within a year - the minimum time-frame that Washington and its negotiating partners demand.
The officials spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss details of the sensitive negotiations as the latest round of talks began between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif. The negotiators are racing to meet an end-of-March deadline to reach an outline of an agreement that would grant Iran relief from international sanctions in exchange for curbing its nuclear program. The deadline for a final agreement is June 30.
One senior U.S. official declined to comment on the specific proposal but said the goal since the beginning of the talks has been "to have Fordo converted so it's not being used to enrich uranium." That official would not say more.
The officials stressed that the potential compromise on Fordo is just one of several options on a menu of highly technical equations being discussed in the talks. All of the options are designed to keep Iran at least a year away from producing an atomic weapon for the life of the agreement, which will run for at least 10 years. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has joined the last several rounds as the negotiations have gotten more technical.