Iran urged to give up most enriched uranium

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - World powers called on Iran on Saturday to agree to part with most of its stockpile of enriched uranium under a revised proposal for a nuclear fuel swap, seen by the West as a possible confidence-building measure.

During talks in Istanbul on Saturday, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton proposed to the Iranian side that Tehran send abroad 2,800 kg of low-enriched uranium (LEU) and 40 kg of higher-grade material, according to one Western diplomat.

The meeting ended without any concrete progress on this or other ideas aimed at helping to resolve the long-running dispute over Iran’s nuclear program.

Ashton’s proposal for a fuel swap would represent most of Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium, which the West fears is potential atom bomb material but which Tehran says is intended as fuel for a planned network of nuclear power stations.

Iran, which denies it is seeking nuclear weapons, has in the past rejected any toughening of conditions for an exchange first proposed in late 2009, under which it would receive fuel for a medical research reactor in return.

Ashton said after the meeting she had hoped for a detailed and constructive discussion on the fuel swap and other ideas.

“But it become clear that the Iranian side was not ready for this, unless we agreed to preconditions relating to enrichment and sanctions,” she said.

In the run-up to the talks in Istanbul, both sides had signaled willingness to resume talks on the fuel swap plan, which was brokered by the U.N. nuclear watchdog in late 2009 but later fell apart after Iran backed away from its terms.

Western diplomats suggested the idea could be revived if Iran also accepts wider discussions they hope will lead to it agreeing to curb nuclear work which they fear has military aims.

Under the original proposal Iran was designed to send out 1,200 kg of LEU and receive higher-enriched fuel in return for the Tehran research reactor. That amount is roughly equivalent to what is needed for a bomb, if refined much further.

Western officials have said the plan must be updated to take into account Iran’s enrichment work over the last year -- it now has a stockpile of more than 3,000 kg -- and address Tehran’s decision last year to start enriching to a level of 20 percent.

“What we wanted to do was to leave behind in Iran roughly what had been left behind when we made the original proposal -- that is to say a level someway short of what you need to make a weapon,” a senior EU official said.

“The proposal also needed to take into account the fact that the Iranians now do enrichment to 19.75 percent ... and any deal will have to involve agreement by Iran that they would cease enriching to that level,” he added.

Western diplomats have suggested the idea could be revived if Iran also accepts wider discussions they hope will lead to it agreeing to curb nuclear work which they fear has military aims.

Analysts and diplomats believe the 2009 deal fell victim to Iran’s internal power rivalries, with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s opponents keen to deny him a diplomatic victory.

Reporting by David Brunnstrom, writing by Fredrik Dahl; editing by Maria Golovnina