TEHRAN (Reuters) -- Iran has failed to accept a UN-drafted plan for it to cut a stockpile of nuclear fuel that the West fears could be used for weapons, and instead said it wanted to buy nuclear fuel from abroad.
The deal drafted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has already been approved by the other parties -- the United States, Russia, and France.
By offering a rival proposal, Iran appeared to be following a well-tested strategy of buying time to avert a threatened tightening of international sanctions.
Iran's reported counteroffer appeared at first glance to offer the West little.
It would not only fail to reduce the stockpile of enriched uranium that is worrying the international community, but also require sanctions imposed on Iran since 2006 to be waived to allow it to buy such sensitive nuclear material.
"Iran is interested in buying fuel for the Tehran research reactor within the framework of a clear proposal," Iranian state television quoted a member of Iran's negotiating team, who attended nuclear talks in Vienna this week, as saying.
"We are waiting for the other party's constructive and trust-building response."
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was quoted as saying during a visit to Lebanon that "via the indications we are receiving, matters are not very positive."
Precise details of Iran's counter-proposal were not made public, and Washington said it was still awaiting a formal Iranian response. But it was unclear how allowing Iran to buy nuclear fuel would fit the big powers' aims.
Western diplomats said the IAEA plan, which has also not been made public, would require Tehran to send 1.2 tons of its known 1.5-tonne stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia and France by the end of the year.
There it would be further enriched, in a way that would make it hard to use for warheads, and returned to Iran for use in a Tehran reactor that makes radioactive medical isotopes.
The deal would test Iran's stated intention to use enriched uranium only for peaceful energy.
It would also buy time for broader talks on world powers' ultimate goal: that Iran allay fears that it has a secret nuclear weapons program by curbing enrichment, in return for trade and technology benefits.
U.S., Russia, France On Board
Diplomats said the United States and France had confirmed their acceptance of the IAEA draft accord in notes sent to the IAEA, the UN nuclear watchdog, and Russia said on October 23 that it was also on board.
IAEA Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei hammered out the draft in three days of consultations in Vienna with the four nations' delegations, and gave them until October 23 to get approval from their capitals.
The deal would cut Iran's LEU stockpile below the threshold that could yield enough fissile material for one nuclear weapon if it were refined to 90 percent purity.
For Iran, it would supply a medical reactor whose fuel stocks will run out in about a year.
After further processing the LEU, Russia, subcontracting with France to skirt Tehran's objections to dealing directly with Paris, would send the material on to the French, who would convert it into special fuel plates.
Iran's envoy hinted after the Vienna talks ended that his government might seek amendments to the plan.
The Islamic Republic says its nuclear energy program is only for producing electricity, but it is years away from having any nuclear power plants that would use LEU.
Shortly before the remarks carried by Iranian state television, a senior developing-nation diplomat with good contacts to the Iranians told Reuters:
"They will not want to lose much of their main bargaining chip, with negotiations pending on broader strategic issues in the nuclear file."
Iran has repeatedly rejected UN and IAEA calls on it to curb enrichment or grant unfettered UN inspections, meant to verify that it is not trying to develop nuclear weapons.
Six world powers will press Iran on those points at further talks at senior foreign ministry level, planned for Geneva.
Kouchner added: "If these indications remain negative and there is no consensus on the expert level...this will reflect negatively on the continuation of the political contacts at the level of the 5+1 meeting in Geneva."