January 20, 2010 / 7:01 PM / 11 years ago

Stalled atom fuel offer to Iran still on table-IAEA

VIENNA (Reuters) - The U.N. nuclear watchdog said on Wednesday it still hoped to seal a draft deal on enriched uranium between Iran and big powers despite Tehran’s rejection of terms meant to stop the material being used for atomic bombs.

Iranian soldiers stand guard on an anti-aircraft machine gun inside the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, 322km (200 miles) south of Iran's capital Tehran March 9, 2006. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi

Diplomats familiar with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s contacts with Iran said on Tuesday that Tehran had notified the U.N. agency about two weeks ago that it could not accept central aspects of the draft deal. This followed months of dismissive or ambiguous remarks made through the media.

The United States quickly dismissed Tehran’s reply as “inadequate.” Iran’s envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, delivered the reply to the agency’s new director-general Yukiya Amano in a meeting earlier this month, diplomats said.

Iran’s failure to meet an effective U.S. deadline of December 31 to accept the October plan devised by then-IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei has prompted Western powers to start pursuing harsher U.N. sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

But IAEA spokeswoman Gill Tudor told Reuters: “The proposal made by the IAEA in October 2009, which was supported by France, Russia and the United States, continues to be on the table.”

“The IAEA will continue to work in good faith as an impartial intermediary. We hope that agreement among the parties will be reached as quickly as possible (to) contribute to the establishment of confidence,” said Tudor.

The IAEA appeared to be cautioning the West not to write off the deal or more diplomacy. Russia and China have also called for more negotiations, opposing more punitive sanctions which they believe may hinder a peaceful solution.

NUCLEAR FUEL SWAP

Under the deal Tehran would transfer 70 percent of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) abroad for conversion into special fuel rods to keep a nuclear medicine reactor running.

The arrangement aimed to reduce Iran’s LEU reserve below the quantity needed for the fissile core of a nuclear weapon, if the material were refined to a high degree of purity.

Western powers accuse Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons ability under cover of a civilian enrichment programme that Tehran says will fuel a future network of nuclear power plants so it can export more of its abundant oil and gas.

Iranian hardliners, however, have called the LEU reserve a critical strategic asset against arch-enemies, such as Israel.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast affirmed on Wednesday that Tehran’s stance was unchanged and it had not reopened discussions with Western powers.

“We are prepared for the phased exchange of fuel. If the other side shows and announces its readiness, we can start talking about the details and review future steps,” he told the semi-official ISNBA news agency.

Iran’s current stockpile would be good for 1-2 bombs and it continues to enrich around the clock, albeit at a relatively slow pace due to apparent problems with ageing centrifuges.

A Western diplomat at the U.N. Security Council in New York said the deal seemed to have been definitively rebuffed by Iran and underlined Iran’s lack of good faith, although the door was always open to further dialogue.

Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Editing by David Stamp

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