VIENNA (Reuters) – Talks between Iran and three big powers resumed Wednesday after further delay over Tehran’s hesitancy to endorse a tentative deal to help defuse a long standoff over its disputed nuclear ambitions.
The U.N. nuclear watchdog said headway in the three-day nuclear talks was slower than expected.
Western diplomats said the holdup was due to Iran’s hesitation to embrace details of a tentative deal struck in Geneva on October 1 to send a large amount of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) reserve to Russia and France for processing.
The multilateral talks, which began Monday, stalled on Tuesday after Iran said it would not agree to curb uranium enrichment, something seen by the powers as essential to make any accord work, and warned France could not be part of a deal.
Wednesday’s meeting began at 0900 GMT with International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei presiding, after a further holdup with U.S., French, Russian, and Iranian delegates consulting among themselves.
Western diplomats said the powers wanted Iran to ship out some 75 percent of its LEU stockpile for more refinement and conversion into fuel rods before the end of the year, which would go back to Tehran to replenish dwindling fuel stocks of a reactor that makes isotopes for cancer care.
Any looser provisions would not establish enough confidence that Iran was genuinely committed to civilian nuclear energy.
The diplomats said ElBaradei told all parties behind closed doors during a brief reunion Tuesday that such a deal was critical to defusing mistrust. Iran’s response was vaguely positive but it was clear it had not made up its mind.
The negotiations offered the first chance to build on understandings struck in Geneva to defuse a long standoff over fears Iran’s stockpiling of enriched uranium is a latent quest to develop atomic bombs, not fuel for electricity as it says.
“I believe we are making progress. It is maybe slower than I expected. But we are moving forward,” ElBaradei, who is presiding over the closed-door gathering, told reporters on Tuesday evening.
ElBaradei said Tuesday was devoted to separate bilateral consultations involving Iran, France, Russia and the United States and he believed a deal was still attainable but difficult technical and confidence-building issues had yet to be settled.
“The (consultations) have been constructive and the meeting with all countries concerned will continue tomorrow,” Iran’s IAEA ambassador, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, told reporters.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and other officials in Tehran accused France Tuesday of reneging on contracts to deliver nuclear materials in the past and said Paris should be excluded from any deal.
Diplomats said a face-saving compromise drafted by the IAEA. Under this, Iran would sign a contract with Russia which would then sub-contract further work to France.
The West hoped that farming out a large amount of Iran’s LEU reserve for reprocessing into fuel for the medical isotope reactor — using technology Iran lacks — will minimize the risk of Iran refining the material to high purity suitable for bombs.
Western diplomats say Tehran must ultimately curb the program to dispel fears of a growing LEU stockpile being further enriched, covertly, to produce nuclear weapons.
But Mottaki said Iran would not curtail enrichment as part of any LEU deal. “Iran will continue its uranium enrichment. It is not linked to buying fuel from abroad,” he said.
LEU is used as fuel for nuclear reactors, while a nuclear bomb requires highly enriched uranium. The West fears Iran’s declared civilian nuclear energy program is a front for producing fissile material for atomic bombs. Iran denies this.