By Sonya Yee
VIENNA - Iran on Sunday agreed to halt its uranium enrichment activities, opening the way for the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency to sign the deal when it reconvenes here today, diplomats said.
The deal with three major European nations virtually assured that Iran would not be referred to the U.N. Security Council, which could impose sanctions.
Hossein Mousavian, Iran's chief negotiator, told the Iranian news agency Mehr that Tehran had sent a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency indicating that it had reached an agreement with Britain, France and Germany on suspending its uranium enrichment program.
A Western diplomat confirmed that the atomic agency had received the letter, but would not comment on its contents.
The IAEA board had awaited a formal withdrawal of Iran's demand to operate 20 centrifuges in defiance of its earlier agreement to halt all enrichment-related programs. Centrifuges are used to enrich uranium for power generation or, if the uranium is highly enriched, for nuclear weapons.
Britain, France and Germany originally had written a draft resolution for the IAEA board specifying Iranian commitments to halt nuclear enrichment and the agency's supervision of its program. The agreement stipulated no deadline or penalty for noncompliance.
But Iran had insisted on a further softening of the language to reflect, among other issues, the voluntary nature of the suspension. Despite winning these changes, Iran wanted to keep 20 centrifuges, saying that it wanted to operate them for research purposes.
The board adjourned Friday without agreement, giving Iranian and European negotiators the weekend to work out their differences.
Associated Press reported Sunday that Iranian negotiators might have scored new concessions in the draft resolution in exchange for dropping the centrifuge demand, including wording emphasizing that the suspension was not legally binding.
The U.S. maintains that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons under the guise of a civilian energy program. IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei's report to the board last week stated that all declared Iranian nuclear materials had been accounted for, although he acknowledged that the agency could not rule out a covert weapons program.
The U.S. has repeatedly insisted that Iran's case be referred to the Security Council but has found little support for its position on the IAEA's 35-nation governing board. The Europeans have attempted to secure Iran's cooperation by offering economic and political incentives and by keeping the U.S. threat of referral at bay.
Weeks of intense negotiation led to Iran agreeing in mid-November to suspend enrichment in exchange for trade incentives and assistance with peaceful nuclear technologies.
That deal took effect Nov. 22 but threatened to founder days later with Iran's insistence that it be allowed the 20 centrifuges.
Gary Samore, a nonproliferation expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, called Iran's last-minute maneuvering a "negotiating gambit" aimed at scoring points ahead of the crucial next round of negotiations with the Europeans, set to begin in mid-December.
"The board resolution is just a holding action to establish the basis for long-term negotiations" between Iran and the Europeans, he said.
The November agreement foresaw Iran halting enrichment activities only while the two sides negotiated a long-term accord. The Europeans are aiming to make the suspension permanent with a deal that could eventually lead to European support for Iranian membership in the World Trade Organization and access to a light-water reactor.
But Iran is adamant about its sovereign right to enrichment, and the centrifuge controversy underscored the country's reluctance to accept a lasting suspension, analysts said.