VIENNA (AP) — Iran faced a new nuclear deadline Friday and new international pressure to agree a uranium enrichment deal brokered by the UN atomic watchdog.
While Russia, France and the United States were expected to approve an arrangement under which Russia would be responsible for enriching Iran’s uranium, the Islamic Republic has given mixed signals over whether it is ready to send virtually all of its uranium abroad.
International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei set the Friday deadline to get approval after talks this week in Vienna between the four countries.
Iran’s envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, has called the proposal “very positive”. But it was not clear whether top officials in the hardline Iranian regime would give their blessing.
Exact details of ElBaradei’s arrangement are not yet known. But diplomats say the draft agreement calls on Iran to hand over 1,200 kilogrammes of the low-enriched uranium (LEU) it has at its Natanz plant — in defiance of UN sanctions — to Russia by the end of the year.
Russia would enrich the material to the 19.75 percent needed to use it in a research reactor that makes radio-isotopes for medical use.
Iran made it clear during the intensive consultations at the IAEA headquarters this week that it did not want France to be part of any deal. France has been a tough critic of Iran’s nuclear drive which Western nations fear is aimed at building a nuclear bomb.
Tehran appears to have got its way, since Soltanieh let slip on Wednesday that the Russians would be “responsible for the whole contract.”
Diplomats say that Russia will take all of the uranium, but it will sub-contract any additional processing to France, so that no direct negotiations between France and Iran are necessary.
Iran insisted Thursday that it would not halt its enrichment work at Natanz even if it approves the deal with Russia.
“There is actually no need for us to enrich uranium to more than four or five percent purity as the reactors that we use need uranium enriched to a maximum of five percent,” said Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation.
“But that does not mean that we will renounce our right to enrich uranium level to a higher level. Iran has the capability to enrich uranium to 20 percent but prefers to obtain the fuel from abroad,” Salehi said.
Salehi said the amount of uranium to be sent abroad was “not large”, but did not elaborate.
Uranium enrichment lies at the heart of Western concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme. It produces fuel for civilian reactors, but in highly extended form can also make the fissile core of an atomic bomb.
Both the United States and France have said they support the draft proposal.
“I think would be an important step for the Iranians to show the international community their intentions,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
Russia appears more cautious. Foreign ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said the talks “testify that we can resolve in a civilised and mutually respectful manner the questions that are a matter of interest for the participants.”
“Consultations are still continuing. Let’s wait for their end and an announcement of concrete results,” Nesterenko said.