Western hopes of nuclear progress dashed by Tehran offer

Iran has said it is ready to start uranium fuel-swaps to assuage concerns in the West about its nuclear enrichment activities, but insisted they take place instantaneously and on its own territory, making rejection of the plan by Washington and its allies a near certainty.

The offer constituted the country's first official response to the terms of potential diplomatic deal, tabled four months ago. Conveyed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), it saw Iran handing much of its low-level enriched uranium to foreign countries which, after a period of up to a year, would return it after further enrichment in the form of fuel rods for a research reactor. Because the counter-proposal from Tehran falls so far short of what the West is expecting, there seemed little chance it would allow for further progress. Instead pressure for tough new sanctions on Iran is likely to grow at the UN although China again voiced reticence yesterday.

Britain was the first to voice disappointment. "We continue to support the original deal," said the Foreign Office. "Iran has continually failed to respond fully to that proposal. It is clearly for the interested parties to respond but it is hard to see how this latest 'offer' properly addresses these issues."

Separately, Tehran last night said security forces had arrested the leader of a Sunni opposition group that has spearheaded insurgency attacks in Iran. He was identified as Abdulmalik Rigi, leader of the Jundallah group. In the past, Iran has accused Britain and the US of aiding the group. Both countries have denied the allegation.

Iran's foreign ministry spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparat, characterised the nuclear offer as a conciliatory gesture. "We are prepared for a fuel swap even though we do not regard this condition of supplying fuel to the Tehran research reactor through a swap as correct." Meanwhile, the IAEA completed a report to be delivered to its governors next week that for the first time rehearses the worry that Iran may be able to attach nuclear payloads to its missiles.

The recent moves have prompted Russia to issue an unusual declaration of alarm regarding Iran's intentions, but China remains a possible barrier to new sanctions. "We hope relevant parties can show flexibility to create conditions for completely and properly solving the Iran nuclear problem through diplomatic efforts," said Foreign Minister spokesman Qin Gang.

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