Iran to send uranium to Turkey in nuclear fuel deal
Iran agreed Monday to ship the bulk of its low enriched uranium abroad in a nuclear fuel swap deal backed by Turkey and Brazil but treated cautiously by European powers seeking new sanctions against Tehran.
Iran touted the deal as a goodwill measure designed to pave the way for a resumption of talks with world powers, Brazil hailed it as "victory for diplomacy" while Turkey said it made the need for further sanctions against Tehran redundant.
But Western diplomats close to the UN nuclear watchdog, which has been probing Iran's nuclear programme for years, said the deal did not remove the case for further UN sanctions against Tehran over its refusal to halt sensitive uranium enrichment work.
The agreement, which commits Iran to depositing 1,200 kilograms (2,640 pounds) of low enriched uranium in Turkey in return for nuclear fuel for its Tehran reactor, was signed in the Iranian capital by the foreign ministers of Iran, Turkey and Brazil.
Iran said that with the signing of the deal, the ball is now in the court of Western powers while President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for fresh talks over the Islamic republic's nuclear programme.
"I hope the 5+1 (UN Security Council permanent members plus Germany) enter talks with honesty, respect and fairness and heed the great work started in Tehran," the official IRNA news agency quoted Ahmadinejad as saying.
But Iran's archfoe Israel, which is the sole if undeclared nuclear power in the Middle East, quickly accused Tehran of manipulating Turkey and Brazil and seeking to buy time in its long-running standoff with the West.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said in Paris the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) must be the first body to respond to Iran's agreement while the German government said nothing could replace a deal between Iran and the UN's nuclear watchdog.
Britain, too, expressed caution.
"Iran's actions remain a serious cause for concern, in particular its refusal to meet for discussions of its nuclear programme, or cooperate fully with the IAEA, and its decision to start enriching low enriched uranium to 20 percent," British junior foreign minister Alistair Burt said in London.
Iran is already under three sets of UN sanctions for refusing to halt its uranium enrichment, which the West fears hides a covert nuclear weapons programme. Tehran insists it will go ahead with enrichment, even after signing the fuel deal.
Monday's signing came after three-way talks in Tehran by Ahmadinejad, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The deal appeared to mark a breakthrough in long-stalled discussions over the refuelling of the Tehran research reactor that makes radioisotopes for cancer treatment.
The IAEA has been trying to persuade Iran since October to sign a deal with the United States, France and Russia that would see Iran's stockpile of low enriched uranium shipped out of the country and then turned into fuel for the research reactor.
But Iran has so far stalled on the deal, insisting it wants to keep the uranium on its own soil for a simultaneous swap with reactor fuel.
Uranium enrichment is at the centre of Western suspicions over Tehran's atomic programme, because in a highly purified form, it can be used to make the fissile material of a nuclear bomb.
Under the new agreement, a copy of which was obtained by AFP, Tehran is ready to deposit the low enriched uranium in Turkey "within one month."
In return, the United States, France and Russia would deliver 120 kilos of fuel required for the reactor "in no later than one year."
A spokeswoman for EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said while the deal was welcome, it "does not solve the fundamental problem which is the international community has serious concerns about (the stated) peaceful intentions of Iran's nuclear programme."
Despite the cool European reaction, an Israeli official told AFP that the fuel swap arrangement would "radically complicate" efforts by world powers looking to rein in Iran's nuclear programme by means of sanctions.
"It is going to be much more difficult for the United States or the Europeans to reject this arrangement because we won't be only dealing with Iran, which is much easier to handle, but with rising powers, such as Brazil and Turkey, with whom relations are very sensitive," he said.
Tehran sparked international concerns in February by stepping up its enrichment level to 20 percent in order to make fuel for the research reactor.
At the time of its last report on Iran in February, the UN watchdog calculated that Iran had stockpiled 2,065 kilograms of low enriched uranium.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu said there was "no need" for further UN sanctions against Iran in the light of the deal as Turkey and Brazil "have made guarantees and the low enriched uranium will remain in Turkey."
Brazil dismissed Israel's criticism with an aide to Lula saying that "Brazil has helped bring the positions together, as a facilitator for dialogue."
© 2010 AFP