ANKARA/MUNICH, Germany, (Reuters) – The United States and Germany said on Saturday they saw no sign Tehran would make concessions on its nuclear programme despite upbeat comments from Iran’s foreign minister over prospects for a deal.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he did not believe agreement was near on a proposal to exchange Iran’s low-enriched uranium for higher-grade fuel for use in a Tehran reactor making medical isotopes, and suggested it was time for more sanctions on Iran.
An accord on exchanging fuel could mark a major breakthrough in the long-running dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme, which the West fears could be used to produce an atomic bomb.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said on Friday he saw good prospects for agreement, but restated two conditions that could be stumbling blocks — that any fuel exchange must be simultaneous and that Iran would determine quantities involved.
“I don’t have the sense that we’re close to an agreement,” Gates told reporters in Ankara where he met Turkish leaders.
The five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany met on Friday to discuss efforts to persuade Iran to halt its nuclear enrichment programme, which Tehran says is for peaceful purposes, but China made clear it was too soon to discuss further sanctions.
A Chinese diplomat pointed to comments from Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who — in contrast to Mottaki — said on Tuesday Iran would be ready to send low-enriched uranium (LEU) abroad before getting reactor fuel back.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Iran had so far failed to dispel Western scepticism that it was prepared to make meaningful concessions over its nuclear programme.
“Our hand is still reaching out towards them. But so far it’s reaching out into nothingness,” he said at an annual security conference in Munich. “And I’ve seen nothing since yesterday that makes me want to change that view.”
Gates said Iran’s response had been disappointing and suggested it was time to move ahead with more sanctions on Iran, which has already had three sets of United Nations sanctions imposed for its failure to halt uranium enrichment.
“If they are prepared to take up the original proposal of the P-5 plus one of delivering 1,200 kilograms of their low enriched uranium, all at once to an agreed party, I think there would be a response to that,” he added, referring to the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany. “But…they have done nothing to reassure the international community that they are prepared to comply with the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty) or stop their progress towards a nuclear weapon, and therefore I think various nations need to think about whether the time has come for a different tack.”
Asked about China’s opposition so far to additional sanctions, Gates said: “I think there will still be an effort to engage with China and I would say I personally don’t believe that the door is closed.”
German Defence Minister Karl-Theodor Zu Guttenberg said it was time for the United Nations Security Council “to live up to its international responsibility, put a stop to this and take the appropriate measures.”
Western powers see the potential fuel swap as a means to ensure Tehran does not further enrich its uranium for potential use in a nuclear weapon. Iran denies it wants to make atomic bombs, but some Tehran officials have expressed strong opposition to the deal.
“In this connection you are after some kind of political fraud and intend to take away the enriched uranium material from the Iranians,” parliament speaker Ali Larijani said, according to the semi-official Fars News Agency.
Some analysts interpret the mixed messages from Tehran as a sign of splits linked to political turmoil after Iran’s disputed June presidential election. Others see it as a delaying tactic.
“It seems to be the old game. They are playing for time, while the international community is divided,” Stephan Bierling, political science professor at the University of Regensburg.
U.S. National Security Adviser James Jones said Iran’s “puzzling defiance” over its nuclear enrichment programme compelled the United States and its allies to work on a “second track of increased pressure”.
“The unprecedented degree of international consensus … demonstrates that Tehran must meet its responsibilities or face wider sanctions and increasing international isolation,” Jones said at the Munich conference.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said there were “hints of more flexibility” in the Iranian position. “But that needs to be put on paper before it can be properly assessed.”
A European Union official said: “We are encouraged by the signals he (Mottaki) is sending, but the thing we are looking for is action in terms of what they are sending to the IAEA.”
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Yukiya Amano was due to meet Mottaki in Munich on Saturday.