WASHINGTON -- In what would be a significant concession, Obama administration officials say they could support allowing Iran to maintain a crucial element of its disputed nuclear program if Tehran took other major steps to curb its ability to develop a nuclear bomb.
U.S. officials said they might agree to let Iran continue enriching uranium up to 5 percent purity, which is the upper end of the range for most civilian uses, if its government agrees to the unrestricted inspections, strict oversight and numerous safeguards that the United Nations has long demanded.
Such a deal would face formidable obstacles. Iran has shown little willingness to meet international demands. And a shift in the U.S. position that Iran must halt all enrichment activities is likely to prompt strong objections from Israeli leaders; the probable Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney; and many members of Congress.
But a consensus has gradually emerged among U.S. and other officials that Iran is unlikely to agree to a complete halt in enrichment. Maintaining an unconditional demand that it do so could make it impossible to reach a negotiated deal to stop Tehran's nuclear program, thereby avoiding a military attack.
Iran has produced 210 pounds of 20 percent-enriched uranium for what it says are peaceful purposes, according to the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency, but it has purified about 6 tons at 5 percent or below. Uranium is considered weapons grade at about 90 percent enrichment.
The question of whether to permit even low enrichment is highly sensitive for the U.S. government and its allies, because of the risk that Iranian scientists still might be able to gain the knowledge and experience to someday build a bomb. But administration officials hope that a new negotiating stance, backed by punishing economic sanctions, could help end the crisis.
The United States and five other world powers began talks with Iran on April 14 in Istanbul, Turkey, to try to broker a deal, amid threats from Israel that it will bomb Iranian nuclear installations if the program isn't dismantled soon.
The United States and its allies were heartened that Iran agreed in Istanbul to keep talking; at a meeting 15 months ago, its negotiator refused to even discuss the country's nuclear program. Talks are to resume May 23 in Baghdad.
At least publicly, the administration had denied suggestions that it would consider approving any Iranian enrichment effort. But recently, some officials had hinted that they might be willing to re-evaluate that position, although with numerous caveats.
A senior administration official said that if Iran fulfills U.S. and other world powers' demands for strict enforcement of U.N. monitoring and safeguards, "there can be a discussion" of allowing low-level domestic enrichment, "and maybe we can get there, potentially."
But the official, who declined to be identified because of the issue's sensitivity, emphasized that such discussions remained only a small possibility, because Iran has shown so little willingness to meet international demands.
Gary Samore, the top White House official on nuclear nonproliferation, left the door open to Iranian enrichment in recent comments, saying the decision on which parts of Tehran's program can continue "is a matter for negotiations."
First Published April 28, 2012 12:45 AM