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TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran's envoy to the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency will present Tehran's position on a draft nuclear fuel deal with three powers in Vienna on Thursday, a semi-official Iranian news agency said 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, on the plan ElBaradei drafted for Iran to send most of its enriched uranium abroad.
A diplomat close to the agency said IAEA inspectors who arrived in Iran on Sunday to examine a previously secret enrichment site under construction 160 km (100 miles) south of Tehran would return to Vienna on Thursday.
Neither the IAEA nor Iranian officials have commented on the inspectors' visit to the site, aimed at verifying that it was intended to yield peaceful nuclear energy, not nuclear weapons.
The U.N. watchdog was not expected to publish its findings before its next quarterly report on Iran, due in mid-November.
Echoing a report by Iranian state television on Tuesday, Mehr said Iran would accept the framework of the U.N. draft but propose changes, a move that could unravel the plan and rekindle demands for harsher international sanctions against Tehran.
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 ElBaradei hammered in consultations last week 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.
It 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 the reactor, which produces radio-isotopes for cancer treatment.
The U.S. role in the deal would entail upgrading safety and instrumentation at the plant, Soltanieh said last week.
For world powers, the plan's appeal lies in reducing the stockpile of Iran's LEU below the threshold needed for conversion into highly-enriched uranium for an atom bomb.
This would buy about a year of time for negotiations on halting enrichment in Iran in exchange for benefits to forge a long-term solution to a standoff over its nuclear ambitions.
The Islamic Republic has ruled out any restraints on its "legal and obvious" right to enrich, and says it is doing so only for power plant fuel, not nuclear warheads.
But its history of nuclear secrecy and continued curbs on U.N. inspections raised Western suspicions that it ultimately seeks to derive bombs from enrichment technology.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised Iran for its decision to grant IAEA inspectors access to the Qom site, whose existence it revealed only last month. This was three years after Western spy services detected the site, diplomats said.
"The inspection of the new Iranian enrichment site in Qom, conducted by the International Atomic Energy Agency this week, is a positive step," Ban told reporters at the United Nations.
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.
Raising another condition likely to be rejected by the powers, 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.
The official news agency IRNA also quoted comments from a Foreign Ministry source indicating Tehran did not trust France to be part of the 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."
IRNA did not make clear what comments by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner the source was referring to.
Kouchner said in an interview on Monday with Britain's Daily Telegraph that he thought more pressure should be piled on Iran to avert the threat of Israel taking military action.
The European Union's foreign policy chief said on Tuesday there was no need to rework ElBaradei's draft and he and Kouchner suggested Tehran would expose itself anew to harsher 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.
Writing by Fredrik Dahl; Editing by Michael Roddy