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Middle East

Tehran edges towards nuclear deal

Atomic watchdog 'crossing fingers' that Iran will heed Friday deadline

The UN nuclear watchdog has given Iran a draft agreement designed to check the country's ability to acquire a nuclear arsenal and says it wants an answer from Tehran by tomorrow. Under the programme, 1.2 tonnes of the Islamic Republic's 1.5 tonne reserve of low-enriched uranium would be shipped to Russia and France by the end of the year and converted into fuel – a process that aims to prevent Iran manufacture nuclear weapons.

The draft deal from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was circulated to Iranian officials along with representatives from three Western powers – the US, Russia and France – at talks being held in Vienna. IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei said: "I cross my fingers that by Friday we have an OK by all the parties concerned."

He said there had been complex technical and legal issues to address over the three days of talks as well as " issues of confidence and trust. That is why it has taken us some time and that is why we need to send the agreement to capitals for approval". He added: "I hope people see the big picture, see that this agreement could open the way for a normalisation of relations between Iran and the international community."

Mr ElBaradei did not disclose details of the plan, but senior diplomatic sources said it was essentially the one agreed in principle at talks earlier this month in Geneva regarding 1,200kg of uranium, around 80 per cent of the total Iran holds.

Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's chief delegate, said the draft was "on the right track" but added that officials back in Tehran would need to "thoroughly study this text and... come back and reflect our opinion and suggestions or comments in order to have an amicable solution". No Iranian official has even acknowledged that Iranian uranium would be sent out for enrichment and a number of senior figures associated with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have made combative statements while the Vienna talks have been taking place about the country's "right" to carry out its own enriching process.

European and American officials sounded a note of caution saying that Iran still had plenty of " wriggle room" to avoid fulfilling the terms of the agreement including the time and pace at which the uranium is shipped out.

Responding to the suggestion that Iran would "string out" the process for as long as possible, a senior Western diplomat said that dealing with Tehran was "a bit like groundhog day, except that in the film you wake up and nothing has changed, whereas with this you wake up and things are just that little bit worse."