By Reza Derakhshi and Hossein Jaseb
TEHRAN (Reuters) – Iran’s envoy to the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency will present Tehran’s position on a draft nuclear fuel deal in Vienna on Thursday, a semi-official Iranian news agency reported on Wednesday.
Mehr News Agency said Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh would personally give Iran’s response to Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), on the U.N.-drafted proposal for Iran to send most of its enriched uranium abroad.
A diplomat close to the IAEA said the U.N. experts who arrived in Iran early on Sunday to inspect the new enrichment site about 160 km (100 miles) south of Tehran also would return to Vienna on Thursday.
Neither the IAEA nor Iranian officials have made any comments about the inspections of the new site, and it is not clear when and if the findings will be made public.
Echoing a report by Iranian state television on Tuesday, Mehr said Iran would accept the framework of the U.N. agreement on enrichment but propose changes, a move that could unravel the plan and expose Tehran to the threat of harsher sanctions.
The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, did not directly confirm the Mehr report but told Reuters Soltanieh left Tehran for Vienna early on Wednesday.
“He will meet with Mr ElBaradei at the first appropriate opportunity and present what he received in Tehran,” Salehi said.
Under the draft deal hammered out by ElBaradei earlier this month after talks in Vienna with Iran, the United States, France and Russia, Iran would send low-enriched uranium (LEU) abroad for further processing and eventual use in a research reactor.
The draft pact calls for Iran to transfer about 75 percent of its known 1.5 tonnes of LEU to Russia for further enrichment by the end of this year, then to France for conversion into fuel plates. These would be returned to Tehran to power a research reactor that produces radio-isotopes for cancer treatment.
Iran says it is enriching uranium only for power plant fuel, not for nuclear warheads. But its history of nuclear secrecy and continued restrictions on U.N. inspections have raised Western suspicions Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons capability.
At the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised Iran for its decision to allow U.N. nuclear inspectors access to the Qom site, whose existence was only made public recently.
“The inspection of the new Iranian enrichment site in Qom, conducted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) this week, is a positive step,” Ban told reporters.
Senior Iranian lawmakers have said Iran should import foreign nuclear fuel rather than send abroad by the end of this year much of its own LEU stock — a crucial strategic asset in talks with world powers — as the U.N. proposal stipulates.
State television said on Tuesday Iran opposed sending its uranium stockpile abroad in one go.
“According to an informed source in Vienna, Iran in its final response to the agency, while accepting the framework, will propose changes,” Mehr said in its report on Wednesday.
Iran’s official IRNA news agency also quoted comments from a Foreign Ministry source, indicating that Tehran did not trust France to be part of the enrichment plan.
“France will be a loser because of its radical position…,” the ministry source was quoted as saying.
“The French foreign minister’s comments once again showed that France does not have any positive will to cooperate with the Islamic Republic on enrichment and our mistrust toward that country was completely correct and based on the realities,” the source continued.
IRNA did not make clear what comments by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner the source was referring to, but Kouchner on Monday in an interview with Britain’s The Daily Telegraph said he thought more pressure should be piled on Iran to avert the threat of Israel taking action.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief said on Tuesday there was no need to rework the U.N. draft and he and Kouchner suggested Tehran would rekindle demands for tougher international sanctions if it tried to undo the plan.
But the Kremlin’s top foreign policy aide said on Wednesday sanctions against Iran were highly unlikely in the near future, Interfax news agency reported.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, a U.S. ally which is seeking to expand economic and other ties with Iran, said Ankara supported a diplomatic solution to the dispute.
“Such a diplomatic solution should be in a way that removes the international community’s concerns and at the same time ensures Iran’s right to have access to peaceful nuclear energy,” he told a news conference during a visit to Tehran.