PARIS -- The international community tentatively decided late yesterday to halt financial support for a nuclear reactor in Iran that could be used to help produce plutonium for atomic bombs. At the same time, the 35-member board of the International Atomic Energy Agency decided to continue funding seven other Iranian civilian nuclear projects.
Under the tentative deal, the Islamic republic would continue to receive technical assistance for its civilian nuclear projects, such as nuclear medicine, but would not receive money for the heavy-water reactor under construction near the town of Arak. The withdrawal of funding - a victory for Western countries that suspect Iran's ultimate goal is to build a nuclear bomb - will be handled in a discreet manner and without a formal vote, which might divide the board.
"The majority were uncomfortable with going ahead with that project," said an official close to the IAEA, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog. "But many were also concerned about setting a precedent; they are worried that their project could be denied next."
The issue will come up at today's meeting of the IAEA board in Vienna, Austria. The board must approve technical assistance projects carried out by the agency, which also inspects nuclear plants for safety and tracks the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Technical assistance to Iran, which totals less than $1 million a year, represents a sliver of the $70 million that the agency spends on technical projects. Worldwide, the U.N. nuclear agency funds more than 800 projects in 134 countries, according to agency officials.
The Arak plant, much like the uranium-enrichment plant Iran is building at Natanz, has a legitimate peaceful use. But it also can be used to make fissionable material for a bomb. Although the IAEA can conduct inspections to ensure that these plants are used only for peaceful purposes, the possibility remains that Iran could follow North Korea's model, leaving the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, expelling inspectors and starting production of fissionable material for a nuclear device.
In deference to the concerns of developing nations, the compromise avoided criticizing Iran or the project directly.
"The technical cooperation program is a two-year-program, so in theory the question could be put forward again," a Western diplomat said. "But, quite frankly, if we have the same situation as today, I cannot imagine that the board will approve it at that time either."
The board reported Iran to the U.N. Security Council in February, saying Tehran had failed to respond fully to U.N. nuclear inspectors' requests for information and had refused to adhere to a board resolution asking it to suspend uranium enrichment.
The council appears unlikely to come to agreement on sanctions any time soon. Russia and China have backed Iran and been reluctant to endorse sanctions, which they fear could push Iran to leave the nonproliferation treaty.
Iran is slowly building a plant to enrich uranium - a second method that can be used to obtain fissile material. But the plant at Natanz has run into difficulties with the delicate centrifuge technology.
Iranian officials assert unequivocally that the Arak plant would be used only to make radioactive isotopes such as those used in nuclear medicine.
Alissa J. Rubin writes for the Los Angeles Times.