Iran calls for talks over UN nuclear deal

Tehran appears to be stalling after earlier concessions to the West

Iran wants more talks on a UN-drafted nuclear deal and prefers to import atomic fuel rather than send its own uranium abroad for processing, a senior official said yesterday, suggesting terms that world powers are likely to rebuff.

Western powers have urged Iran to accept a draft deal in which it would send most of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) abroad by the end of the year for further enrichment to turn it into fuel for a medical reactor in Tehran.

But Iranian ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh told Reuters that more talks were needed "in order to ensure that our technical concerns, and especially the issue of the guarantee of the fuel supply, are taken into consideration".

Iran's requests will add to doubts that a way out of a stand-off with big powers will be found soon. Tehran seems to be stalling after appearing ready to make concessions to the international community, which is threatening to impose new sanctions because of fears that Iran is pursuing an atomic weapons programme.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) urged Iran to accept the deal with the United States, France and Russia so Tehran can help build confidence in its atomic work. "The issue at stake remains that of mutual guarantees amongst the parties," the IAEA's director-general, Mohamed ElBaradei, told the UN General Assembly in New York.

Iran says its enrichment programme is peaceful and officials have voiced misgivings about parting with the bulk of Iran's LEU, seen as a strategic asset and key bargaining chip. "We are ready for the next round of technical discussions in Vienna at the IAEA headquarters," Soltanieh said by telephone, adding that the IAEA should now arrange a date.

Western powers have signalled that their patience is limited and that they will consider new sanctions early next year if Iran does not make its nuclear work more transparent.

France and Germany urged Iran to accept ElBaradei's deal, echoing earlier comments from Britain and Russia. "We are waiting for a reply. If the reply is aimed at delaying matters, as we believe, then we will not accept it," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told a news conference in Paris with German counterpart Guido Westerwelle.

The plan, backed by the other participants, aims to reduce Iran's LEU stockpile below the minimum quantity that could be turned into the highly enriched uranium needed for a bomb.

"We are ready to buy the fuel from any supplier under the full scope of safeguards and surveillance of the IAEA," said Soltanieh, Tehran's veteran ambassador to the atomic watchdog. "The core issue is the assurance and guarantee of the supply, keeping in mind the past confidence deficit where we did not receive the fuel we had paid for," he said.

Western diplomats say Iran has asked to receive fuel for a Tehran reactor making radio-isotopes for cancer treatment before shipping out any of its own LEU. Iran also wants to transfer the enriched uranium in small shipments – not in one go.

They say Iranian demands are unacceptable because the deal in this form would not lessen Tehran's potential to turn LEU into bomb-grade nuclear fuel if it wanted, a scenario the West fears due to Iran's history of nuclear secrecy.

"The messages from Tehran are negative, I am quite pessimistic," one European diplomat said.