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Iran Now Says Ready To Send Uranium Abroad For Enrichment


Atomic experts working in the Natanz nuclear plant, one of Iran's enrichment sites.
(RFE/RL) -- Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has announced an apparent reversal of Iran's position on a United Nations-brokered plan to send its low-enriched uranium abroad for further enrichment.

Speaking on state television, Ahmadinejad said Iran would have "no problem" giving the West its low-enriched uranium and taking it back several months later when it is enriched to 20 percent.

"We have no problem sending our enriched uranium abroad. Some [Western countries] made a noise without cause," Ahmadinejad said. "There is no problem because we are ready to sign an agreement for fuel exchange. We give them the 3.5 percent [enriched] fuel, and after four or five months they deliver the 20 percent [enriched] fuel to us."

His apparent acceptance of at least the main points comes after months of criticism of a plan -- presented by six world powers -- expressed by Iranian media and officials, including Ahmadinejad himself.

The announcement could reflect a major shift in the Iranian position, although that is far from clear, says Shannon Kile, a senior nonproliferation expert and researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Institute.

"I personally think that President Ahmadinejad genuinely wants to reach some sort of fuel exchange deal," Kile tells RFE/RL. (Full interview) "I think part of the problem in reaching the deal with the 5 +1 states has in fact been the inability of President Ahmadinejad to get all of the leadership in Tehran on board in particular the conservatives in the Iranian parliament. So I think it remains to be seen whether this latest statement by President Ahmadinejad will actually enjoy full domestic backing inside of Iran."

Under the six powers' proposed deal, Tehran would transfer 70 percent of its low-enriched uranium abroad for enrichment to 20 percent, and at the same time for conversion into fuel rods. These can power a nuclear reactor but cannot be easily turned into weapons-grade fissile material.

The aim of the plan is to reduce Iran's uranium reserves below the quantity needed to make a nuclear weapon. Iran denies any intention to manufacture atomic bombs.

International Reaction

In a first U.S. reaction, national security spokesman Mike Hammer said that if Ahmadinejad's comments really do reflect an "updated position," the United States "looks forward" to Iran informing the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

But at the U.S. State Department, spokesman Philip Crowley said Washington would not be interested in renegotiating the deal.

Crowley's comment appears to relate to Ahmadinejad's reference to the enriched uranium being returned to Iran "four or five months" after being sent abroad. The plan as presented to Iran by a panel of six world powers foresees the uranium as being returned to Iran in about a year. That condition is also aimed at slowing up any intention Iran might have to make a nuclear bomb.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow would welcome Tehran's acceptance of a UN-brokered offer to ship uranium abroad for enrichment, according to Reuters.

"If Iran was to return to the scheme that was proposed in October, then we would welcome that," Lavrov said in Moscow.

China has also responded, emphasizing its interest in resolving the dispute soon.

"On the question of Iran, we understand that we need to press on with negotiations," Reuters quoted Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi as saying after talks with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. "We need to try and find a solution as quickly as possible through negotiations."

Still Many Questions

In his comments today, Ahmadinejad made no reference to another provision of the plan -- namely, that the uranium should be sent abroad in one batch, also to reduce the amount of material in Iran's hands at any one time.

Iranian officials have previously said they envisage instead a series of small deliveries, rather than one big shipment overseas.

"If we can reach an agreement on time and quantity, we can talk about the place. Turkey is an option, Iran itself is an option," said Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki. "Our friends in Brazil and Japan also declared that they have been making preparations for it."

Mottaki added that the exchange could also take place in Iran.

Analyst Kile questions whether Iran is truly willing to ship such fuel, "at least in the initial stages," outside its borders. He mentioned recent reports suggesting Tehran would push to exchange fuel initially on Iranian territory, say, on Kish Island in the Persian Gulf.

Ahmadinejad's apparent change of heart is being met with skepticism in some quarters.

Some correspondents note that the United States is pressing hard for new UN Security Council sanctions against Iran because of its nuclear program. They say this could well be a case of the Iranian government playing for time, trying to slow agreement in the council on new sanctions.

compiled from agency reports