Iran urges sceptical powers to accept atom swap offer
VIENNA (Reuters) - Iran outlined to the U.N. nuclear watchdog on Monday a deal to give up some of its enriched uranium but diplomats said the gesture would have no effect on a push to widen sanctions against Tehran over its atomic activity.
Western powers see the pact, reflecting one Iran backed out of six months ago, as overtaken by events including escalating enrichment by Tehran. Along with Russia and China, they have drafted a fourth U.N. sanctions resolution against Iran.
Iran has threatened to ditch the plan if it is hit with another resolution, envisaged for adoption next month.
The proposal to swap low-enriched uranium (LEU) for fuel to run an Iranian medical research reactor, aimed at allaying fears Iran is trying to amass fissile material for nuclear weapons, was agreed last week by Tehran with Turkey and Brazil.
Some diplomats say prospects for the deal look bleak unless Iran stops enriching uranium to higher levels, a process it started in February stoking Western fears it ultimately aims to produce bomb-grade material. Iran says its higher enrichment is to produce fuel for the reactor at the centre of the swap deal.
In a letter handed to the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Monday, Iranian nuclear programme chief Ali Akbar Salehi said he expected a "positive response" and that negotiations could lead the way to a written agreement.
But a senior big power diplomat said Iran's letter would have no impact on the sanctions deliberations and added that Brazil and Turkey were not actively participating in discussions on the draft resolution.
As in October, Iran has agreed to transfer 1,200 kg (2,646 lb) of LEU -- enough for an atom bomb if enriched to high purity -- abroad in return for special fuel rods to replenish the stocks of its medical isotope reactor.
The IAEA said agency chief Yukiya Amano had passed on the letter to the United States, France and Russia to consider.
The three countries are parties to the original fuel swap pact brokered by Amano's predecessor, Mohamed ElBaradei, last October but which stumbled on subsequent Iranian demands for wholesale amendments.
Salehi accused the other parties to the deal of imposing "unjustified conditions" which held up progress, according to a copy of the letter obtained by Reuters.
TURKEY AS MIDDLEMAN IN FUEL SWAP
Under the deal Iran's LEU would be kept in a third country -- Turkey -- under IAEA supervision, still officially Iranian property, until Tehran received the fuel rods. Previously the LEU was to be sent to Russia and France for processing, with the fuel rods provided to Iran around a year later.
World powers have voiced doubt about the value of the new offer since 1,200 kg no longer represents the bulk of a stockpile that has grown significantly since then. That means Iran could still be left with enough for a nuclear warhead.
Iran has also started refining uranium to a higher level.
"They say the higher enrichment is to make fuel for the reactor. Why would they continue to do this if they get the fuel?" a Western diplomat said. "If they carry on like this then I would be very surprised if this fuel deal goes anywhere."
Turkey and Brazil -- both currently non-permanent members of the Security Council -- have urged a halt to talk of further sanctions because of the deal. But Western powers see it as an Iranian stalling tactic to derail more biting sanctions.
Iran's envoy to the IAEA, in remarks unlikely to defuse Western suspicions, made clear the fuel swap would not restrict escalating uranium enrichment in Iran in any way. "This is not the issue," Ali Asghar Soltanieh told Reuters by telephone.
"We expect (this offer) to be realized as soon as possible," he said in a message to France, Russia and the United States.
Turkey said the letter was "positive and constructive." "We expect the recipients of the letter to show a similar attitude," a foreign ministry spokesman told the Anatolian news agency.
Israel's deputy prime minister Dan Meridor said the deal could be a sign Tehran is feeling pressure but added that it may also be a trick.
The new, extended sanctions would target Iranian banks and call for inspection of vessels suspected of carrying cargo related to Iran's nuclear or missile programmes.
Iran has been under sanctions since 2006 over its refusal to suspend enrichment -- technology that can produce fuel for electricity or for atomic bombs -- and open up entirely to IAEA inspections and investigations.
(Additional reporting by Robin Pomeroy in Tehran, Daren Butler in Istanbul, Douglas Hamilton in Jerusalem and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Editing by Mark Heinrich)
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