Iran wants to buy ready-made fuel for its research reactor, a senior Iranian envoy said Monday - the latest indication that Tehran is rejecting a U.S-backed plan that would have the Islamic Republic ship most of its enriched uranium out of the country.
"We want to buy the fuel from any supplier," said Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's chief representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Soltanieh, however, evaded a direct answer when asked if that meant Iran was rejecting an international plan to have Tehran export most of its enriched uranium stockpile and have that material shipped back as fuel for its research reactor.
Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said earlier Monday that Iran had not rejected the U.N.-backed uranium shipment plan.
Mottaki told reporters in Kuala Lumpur that Iran conveyed its stand to the International Atomic Energy Agency two days ago.
The plan aims to delay Iran's ability to make nuclear arms by sending most of the material needed to make weapons out of the country. Tehran says its nuclear program is peaceful and needed to generate energy for its growing population, but other nations, including the U.S., fear the program aims to develop nuclear weapons.
"We are ready for the next round of technical discussions to make sure that our concerns ... are taken into consideration," Soltanieh told The Associated Press.
He said the Iranian proposal created a "historical juncture" for countries discussing an enrichment deal with Iran to "prove their political goodwill."
Since its clandestine enrichment program was revealed seven years ago, Iran has amassed more than 3,300 pounds of low-enriched uranium at its cavernous underground facility at Natanz. It is also under U.N. sanctions for its nuclear program.
With Iran needing fuel for its research reactor, the six world powers trying to persuade Iran to ease suspicions about its nuclear activities had suggested that Russia take most of the Islamic Republic's low-enriched uranium and enrich it to the higher level needed to fuel the reactor. France would then turn this material into fuel rods for the Iranian facility.
If Iran exports most of its enriched uranium, its ability to make the core of a nuclear warhead would be delayed.
But the U.S, Russia and France failed at Vienna talks late last month to persuade Iran to accept.
Instead, Tehran signaled it wanted to hold on to most of its enriched uranium and either buy fuel abroad instead, or possibly enrich what it had inside the country to the higher level needed for the Tehran reactor.
A third possibility floated by Iranian officials was that the country would send out a small amount and wait for that to be returned as research reactor fuel before sending out the next small amount.
But those options were voiced either by parliamentarians or unnamed officials. Soltanieh's comments appeared to be the first concrete statement of what Iran wanted.
None of these options are acceptable to the West. Tehran says it is enriching only to make fuel for a future network of nuclear reactors, but the West fears Tehran's "breakout capacity" - the ability to reconfigure its enrichment operation and turn its low-enriched material into fissile, weapons grade uranium.
If Iran agreed to ship out 70 percent of its enriched stockpile, as demanded by the West, it would no longer have enough to turn into nuclear warhead material - at least not for the year or so that it would need to replenish its stockpile.
The plan drawn up by IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei plan would commit Iran to turn over more than 2,600 pounds of low-enriched uranium - more than the commonly accepted amount needed to produce weapons-grade material.