TEHRAN (Reuters) -- Iran could consider sending its low-enriched uranium abroad, the Foreign Ministry said today, signaling a possible softening of its opposition to a plan aimed at easing Western concern over its nuclear ambitions.
Last week Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki rejected a UN-drafted deal that would see Iran ship low-enriched uranium (LEU) abroad for reprocessing.
But Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said today that Iran was not opposed to sending LEU abroad as long as it had "100 percent guarantees" of receiving refined fuel in return, for use in a medical research reactor.
"Regarding the guarantees we are not going to suggest anything, but one...could be exchanging it on Iranian soil," Mehmanparast told a news conference.
Any fuel swap in Iran, however, would likely be a nonstarter for Western powers which are seeking a delay in Tehran's potential to make a nuclear bomb by reducing its LEU stockpile. Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful.
Iran's top nuclear official said it was up to world powers to find a guarantee that would satisfy Iran.
"The only way is that the West should give us a 100-percent guarantee to make this deal doable. The guarantee should be agreed by Iran," Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, told Reuters when asked whether Iran's condition was to swap the fuel in its territory.
Major powers on November 20 urged Tehran to accept the proposal brokered by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). U.S. President Barack Obama has warned of more sanctions on Iran, the world's fifth-largest oil producer.
Some analysts say hard-line President Mahmud Ahmadinejad favors the fuel deal as a way to shore up his legitimacy after his disputed reelection in June, but that domestic rivals are trying to undermine him by criticizing the proposal.
Western officials also suspect that Iran is trying to buy time and avert the threat of more punitive measures by offering to hold further talks on the plan while pressing ahead with its nuclear enrichment work.
"Nobody in Iran ever said that we are against sending 3.5 percent-enriched uranium abroad. We talked about the process of dispatching fuel," Mehmanparast said.
"If we say we are looking for 100 percent guarantees, it means that we want 3.5 percent enriched uranium to be sent out under such circumstances that we make sure that we will receive the 20 percent fuel."
Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, said, according to Iran's Arabic-language al Alam television: "The Islamic Republic of Iran needs objective guarantees for exchanging fuel for its Tehran reactor."
Western powers agree that Iran has the right to develop a civilian nuclear program, but want restrictions to prevent it from developing a nuclear weapon.
Iran says its nuclear work is aimed at generating electricity and has ruled out suspending its uranium enrichment. Refined uranium can have both civilian and military uses.
The draft deal calls on Iran to send some 75 percent of its LEU to Russia and France, where it would be turned into fuel for the Tehran reactor.
Mottaki said last week: "Surely we will not send our 3.5 percent fuel abroad but can review swapping it simultaneously with nuclear fuel inside Iran."
The United States has rejected Iranian calls for amendments and further talks on the deal. Obama has said time was running out for diplomacy to resolve the long-running nuclear standoff.
Jalili said supply of fuel for the Tehran reactor was not a political issue and it was not related to Iran's talks with six world powers -- the United States, France, Britain, Germany, China, and Russia.
"It is a commercial issue. Iran has asked the agency to provide it for Iran," Jalili said. "If they can't provide fuel in time and based on Iran's request, then...we have other options to get fuel."