Iran has given an "initial response" to the International Atomic Energy agency on a plan that calls for Tehran to ship much of its enriched uranium abroad, the IAEA said Thursday. The wording of the IAEA statement appeared to dash Western hopes of a quick deal that would delay Tehran's ability to make a nuclear weapon.
The U.S. and allied countries were seeking Iranian agreement to ship out 70 percent of its low-enriched uranium to Russia in one shipment for further enrichment and conversion into fuel for a Tehran research reactor.
Sending that amount in one batch would not leave Tehran with enough material to make weapons-grade uranium should it decide to make a warhead. Experts say Iran would need at least a year to produce enough to make up for the exported material, giving the international community a window in its efforts to persuade the Islamic Republic to freeze its enrichment program.
But Iran has signaled in recent days that it was unwilling to give up most of its enriched stockpile in a single shipment and would seek to re-negotiate terms worked out by IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei in talks last week with Iran, Russia, France and the U.S. That Iranian stance was reinforced by the language of the IAEA statement.
Besides speaking of "an initial response from the Iranian authorities" suggesting that Iran was looking for further talks - the statement indicated the possible need for further negotiations. It said ElBaradei expressed "hope that agreement can be reached soon" and was consulting with the four nations involved.
Earlier Thursday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said "ground has been paved for nuclear cooperation" and that Tehran is ready to work on nuclear fuel supplies and technical know-how with the U.N. nuclear watchdog.
But he insisted his government "will not retreat even an iota" over the nation's right to pursue a nuclear program, which he called an "inalienable right."
The plan would commit Iran to turn over more than 2,600 pounds of low-enriched uranium more than the commonly accepted amount of low-enriched uranium needed to produce weapons-grade uranium. The West says Tehran agreed in principle to export that amount in one shipment during Oct. 1 talks in Geneva with the U.S. and five other world powers.
But if Tehran did accept the plan in Geneva, it has subsequently backtracked.
It has indicated that it may insist on being allowed to buy the fuel for the Tehran reactor from abroad or to ship the material in small batches. That would not reduce fears about further enrichment to weapons-grade uranium because Iran would be able to quickly replace small amounts it sent out of the country with newly enriched material.