Iran is ready to exchange the bulk of its stockpile of enriched uranium for nuclear fuel rods — as proposed by the U.N. — but according to its own mechanisms and timetable, the foreign minister said Saturday.
The minister's remarks come just days before an expected meeting between the U.S. and allies to discuss new sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. The offer, however, falls far short of the conditions set by the international community.
Speaking to reporters at a regional security conference in Bahrain, Manochehr Mottaki said Iran agreed with a U.N. deal proposed in October in which up to 2,600 pounds of its uranium would be exchanged for fuel rods to power its research reactor.
"We accepted the proposal in principle," he said through a translator. "We suggested in the first phase we give you 400 kilograms of 3.5 percent enriched uranium and you give us the equivalent in 20 percent uranium."
Iran has about 3,300 pounds of low-enriched uranium and needs to refine to 20 percent to operate a research reactor that produces medical isotopes.
Uranium enriched at low levels can be used as fuel for nuclear energy, but when enriched to 90 percent and above, it can be used as material for a weapon. The United States and five other world powers have been trying to win Iran's acceptance of a deal under which Tehran would ship most of its low-enriched uranium stockpile abroad to be processed into fuel rods, which can't be enriched further.
The deal would leave Iran — at least temporarily — without enough enriched uranium to produce a bomb. However, after signaling in October that it would accept the proposal, Iran has since balked, giving mixed signals over the deal, including several statements from lawmakers rejecting it outright.
Mottaki maintained, however, that a clear proposal had been given involving the simultaneous exchange of uranium for fuel rods in stages.
"We gave a clear answer and we responded and our answer was we accepted in principle but there were differences in the mechanism," he said, suggesting the exchange take place on Iran's Kish island, in the Persian Gulf.
It is not clear, however, if the low-enriched uranium would then remain on the island or could be shipped out of the country — a necessary condition to any deal from the standpoint of the international community.
The world powers are also unlikely to accept a long drawn out exchange in stages, as it would allow Iran to maintain enough enriched uranium inside the country to possibly build a weapon.
Iran, meanwhile, wants to receive the fuel rods immediately in exchange for its uranium for fear that France or Russia could renege deal.
Last month, the 35-nation board of the International Atomic Energy Agency endorsed a resolution from the six powers — the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — criticizing Iran for defying a U.N. Security Council ban on uranium enrichment and continuing to expand its operations.
It also censured Iran for secretly building a second facility and demanded that it immediately suspend further construction.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said last month that the U.N. offer has been "comprehensively rejected" by Iran. A diplomat from one of the six powers said Wednesday that America's Western allies were waiting for Washington to formally declare the wait for an Iranian response over, probably by the end of this month.
The six countries are expected to meet next week to discuss what action to take over Iran.
EU leaders said they would support further U.N. sanctions unless Tehran starts cooperating over its nuclear program.