Iran on Wednesday described its latest offer to send uranium abroad for enrichment as a way to ease suspicions about his country's nuclear ambitions, but skeptical Western officials demanded concrete actions from Tehran instead of just words.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said he saw the surprise Iranian gesture as stalling rather than responding to an international offer that, if rejected, could lead to a fourth round of U.N. sanctions.
"My (personal) interpretation is that they are buying us time and they are losing it" themselves, Kouchner said at a joint press briefing with China's foreign minister. "I am perplexed and even a bit pessimistic."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said all Iran needed to do is to accept the plan as drawn up months ago, by formally notifying the International Atomic Energy Agency of its approval.
"Iran's response to our efforts has been inadequate and we have begun considering further appropriate measures that might convince Iran to reconsider its nuclear program and engage with the international community," Clinton said.
Clinton added that the IAEA made an offer that Iran initially agreed to but never followed through. "The deal is still on the table. If Iran wishes to accept it, we look forward to hearing about it from the IAEA," she said.
Western officials spoke a day after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran is ready to send its uranium abroad for further enrichment as called for by a plan endorsed by the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.
His comments appeared to at least move Iran closer to the proposal brokered by the International Atomic Energy Agency. That plan asked Iran to ship 70 percent of its enriched uranium out for processing into fuel rods for its Tehran nuclear reactor.
Actions rather than words
Still it was unclear how much of a concession the Ahmadinejad comments represented.
His timeframe of four or five months appeared to fall short of the year that Western officials say the process would take.
It was also unclear if Iran was ready to ship out 70 percent of its enriched uranium in one batch, as foreseen under the IAEA-mediated plan. That would prevent the Islamic Republic from topping up its supply through its enrichment program and maintain enough to make the core of a nuclear warhead.
Iran says it wants to enrich only to make nuclear fuel for an envisaged nationwide network of nuclear reactors.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told reporters Wednesday in Turkey that Ahmadinejad's comments represented "a formula which could build confidence."
But German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told journalists that Iran has to be measured by its actions, not by what it says."
"It is up to Iran to show an end to its refusal to negotiate," he said.
If there is no real movement on the Iranian side, Westerwelle said, the international community will go forward with preparing new measures including sanctions.
"Only actions count, not the words," Westerwelle said.
The plan worked out last year envisaged Iran sending low-enriched uranium to Russia and then to France for further enrichment and then processing into metal fuel rods for use in a research reactor in Tehran. It was aimed at lowering international tensions between Iran and the world powers negotiating over its nuclear program.
Britain's Foreign office said Wednesday that London has "always supported the proposal that the IAEA made in October. If Iran is now indicating that they will take it up we look forward to them making that clear to the IAEA."
Ahmadinejad's comments appeared timed in part to defuse pressure from the U.S., Britain, and France on fellow permanent U.N. Security Council members China and Russia for a fourth set of sanctions on Iran.
While Russia has eased its traditional skepticism over sanctions in recent months, veto-wielding China, now holding Security Council's rotating presidency, remains opposed to harsh penalties on one of its main oil and gas suppliers.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week that she and others who support additional sanctions on Iran over its disputed nuclear program are lobbying China to back new U.N. penalties on the Iranian government.
But Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jieche avoided criticizing Tehran, stressing instead the need to continue negotiations with Tehran with the aim of a quick diplomatic solution.
"We want a consensus as soon as possible," he said.
Russia suggested Ahmadinejad's comments warranted closer examination.
"If Iran is willing to revert to the plan agreed upon earlier, we will only welcome this," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters: "We want to verify this information now."
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, on a visit to Israel, told that nation's legislature that the world "cannot accept" a nuclear-armed Iran.