Trust in Tehran depends on their follow-up

One should remain cautious when judging Iran's announcement that it would consider enriching its uranium abroad and shipping it back as weapons-proof fuel for its research reactor.

After four months of wavering and rejections, the Iranian authorities now say that they would consider an offer by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the world's great powers on their nuclear programme. The deal would allow them to enrich their uranium abroad and ship it back as weapons-proof fuel for its research reactor. On Tuesday the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said his country would have "no problem" with this proposal, though he did not offer details. In remarks at a security conference in Munich, his foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, went further: "We think all parties have the political will to fulfil this exchange. The Islamic Republic is also serious. We are approaching a final agreement that can be accepted by all parties."

Talks over Iran's nuclear plans have dragged since 2002, with Iran willing to compromise for a time when the US was not and vice versa. But last October in Geneva the IAEA and the P5+1 group of nations offered the most far-reaching deal to date - a deal that Tehran accepted before domestic squabbling appeared to change their position. Tehran then tried to amend the offer unilaterally, proposing to send less uranium out of the country or have the enrichment happen on Iranian soil, negating the confidence-building elements of the Geneva proposal. If anything, the episode revealed how dysfunctional decision making had become in Iran against the backdrop of the domestic upheaval there.

One should remain cautious when judging Iran's latest gesture. The new Iranian offer could be a product of Tehran's concerns about a new round of sanctions and their conciliatory tone could be intended to stunt any growing momentum in that direction. The Iranian leadership may be responding to the remarks of Konstantin Kosachyov, the head of the foreign relations committee in the Russian parliament's lower house. He has warned that Russia was coming closer to the western position on Iran, indicating that his nation may approve, or at least not block, new UN sanctions. Tehran damaged its reputation in Moscow after they reversed their acceptance of the Geneva agreement; the Russians had been its key architect and had invested significant political capital to broker it.

Tehran has taken comfort in China's continued support. It is doubtful though that Beijing would stand alone against the four other UN permanent members if they pursued sanctions against Iran. It may also be the case that, with a massive demonstration expected by the Iranian opposition on February 11, the Iranian regime is trying to attain a tactical detente with the international community to discourage internal dissent. Indeed, the Iranian opposition fears that a focus on the nuclear issue will come at the expense of their agenda for human rights and political reform. Still, the international community should not disregard Iran's limited opening. But for Tehran to be trusted, it must now formally notify the IAEA of its unconditional acceptance of the Geneva understanding.