Manama, Bahrain After weeks of conflicting responses, Iran abruptly said Saturday that it is ready to exchange uranium for nuclear fuel — the key demand of a U.N.-sponsored initiative to defuse global fears over its nuclear program.
The conditions laid out in comments from Iran’s foreign minister, however, are unlikely to satisfy the U.S. and its allies as they prepare to discuss new sanctions against Tehran at a meeting that could take place in the coming week.
Iran’s stockpile of uranium is at the heart of international concerns because it offers Iran a possible pathway to nuclear weapons production if it is enriched to higher levels. Tehran insists it only wants to use the material to produce fuel for power plants and for other peaceful purposes.
Under a U.N. plan proposed in October and being pushed by Washington and five other world powers, Iran would ship most of its uranium — up to 2,600 pounds of it — abroad. It would then be enriched to higher levels in Russia, turned into fuel rods in France and returned to power a research reactor in Tehran that produces medical isotopes.
The material in the fuel rods cannot be enriched to higher levels, denying Iran the ability to use it to make weapons.
“We accepted the proposal in principle,” Foreign Minister Manochehr Mottaki told reporters at a regional security conference in Bahrain.
In what is almost certain to be a deal breaker, however, he spoke of exchanging the material in phases rather than all at once as is called for in the U.N. plan. He said Iran had offered to make a first shipment of 880 pounds of enriched uranium.
Carrying it out in slow stages would leave Iran in control of enough uranium to make a bomb.
A senior Obama administration official said Mottaki’s remarks appeared to fall short of demands.
“Iran’s proposal today does not appear to be consistent with the fair and balanced draft agreement proposed by the IAEA in consultation with the United States, Russia and France,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the U.S. has yet to formulate an official response to the development.
Officials at the U.N. nuclear agency could not be reached for comment Saturday.
In another change to the plan, Iran wants to receive the fuel rods immediately in simultaneous exchanges for its uranium because it says it is worried that France or Russia could renege on the deal.
Another unanswered question is whether the uranium Iran is offering to exchange would actually be shipped out of the country or just left — perhaps under observation — inside its borders in what would present another departure from the U.N. plan.