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Iran delays reply on U.N.-backed atom deal to next week

VIENNA (Reuters) - Iran told the U.N. nuclear watchdog it is favourably examining a plan for it to cut an atomic stockpile the West fears could be used for weapons, the agency said, but delayed a response to next week.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner speaks during a news conference after meeting with Lebanon's Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri in Beirut, October 23, 2009. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

Iranian officials gave a more negative message earlier on Friday by saying Tehran preferred to acquire enriched uranium abroad rather than send out its own under the U.N.-drafted plan accepted by the United States, Russia and France.

Their remarks suggested that instead of engaging with the IAEA’s draft, Iran was following a well-tested strategy of buying time to blunt Western pressure for harsher international sanctions while it presses on with nuclear research.

“Iran informed the Director-General today that it is considering the proposal in depth and in a favourable light, but needs time until the middle of next week to provide a response,” the International Atomic Energy Agency said in a statement.

It said IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei, who had set a deadline of Friday for responses, hoped Iran’s response “will equally be positive, since approval of this agreement will signal a new era of cooperation” after seven years of mounting confrontation.

But the stance taken by Iranian officials earlier offered little to douse concern about a nuclear “breakout” risk in Iran.

Buying enriched uranium abroad would not only fail to reduce the domestic stockpile worrying the international community, but also require sanctions imposed on Iran since 2006 to be waived to allow it to import such sensitive nuclear material.

“Iran is interested in buying fuel for the Tehran research reactor within the framework of a clear proposal,” Iranian state television quoted a member of Iran’s negotiating team, who attended nuclear talks in Vienna this week, as saying.

“We are waiting for the other party’s constructive and trust-building response.”

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was quoted as saying during a visit to Lebanon that “via the indications we are receiving, matters are not very positive”.

“BAD SIGN”

Precise details of Iran’s response were not made public, and Washington said it was still awaiting a formal Iranian response. But it was unclear how allowing Iran to buy nuclear fuel would serve non-proliferation objectives.

“This is a bad sign. Buying nuclear fuel abroad is a complete non-starter under sanctions. They seem to be looking for modifications that would fundamentally (weaken) the deal,” said David Albright, head of the Institute for Science and International Security, which tracks nuclear proliferation.

Western diplomats said the IAEA plan, which has also not been made public, would require Tehran to send 1.2 tonnes of its known 1.5-tonne stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia and France by the end of the year.

There it would be further processed, in a way that would make it hard to use for warheads, and returned to Iran as fuel plates to power a Tehran reactor that makes radioactive medical isotopes but is due to run out of its imported fuel in a year.

The deal would test Iran’s stated intention to use enriched uranium only for peaceful energy.

It would also gain time for broader talks on world powers’ ultimate goal: that Iran allay fears that it has a secret nuclear weapons programme by curbing enrichment, in return for trade and technology benefits.

U.S., FRANCE AND RUSSIA ON BOARD

Diplomats said the United States and France had confirmed their acceptance of the IAEA draft accord in notes sent to the IAEA, and Russia said on Friday it was also on board.

IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei hammered out the draft in three days of difficult consultations in Vienna with the four nations’ delegations, and gave them until Friday to get approval from their capitals.

The deal would reduce Iran’s reserve of LEU below the threshold that could yield enough fissile material for one nuclear weapon if refined to 90 percent purity. LEU is refined to 5 percent. The reactor’s fuel is 20 percent pure.

The Islamic Republic says its nuclear energy programme is only for producing electricity, but it is years away from having any nuclear power plants that would use LEU.

Shortly before the remarks carried by Iranian state television, a senior developing nation diplomat with good contacts with the Iranians said he doubted Iran would agree to transfer the bulk of its LEU stockpile abroad.

“They will not want to lose much of their main bargaining chip, with negotiations pending on broader strategic issues in the nuclear file,” he told Reuters.

Iran has repeatedly rejected U.N. and IAEA calls on it to curb enrichment or grant unfettered U.N. inspections, meant to verify that it is not trying to develop nuclear weapons.

Six world powers will press Iran on those points at further talks at senior foreign ministry level, planned for Geneva.

Kouchner added: “If these indications remain negative and there is no consensus on the expert level ... this will reflect negatively on the continuation of the political contacts at the level of the 5+1 meeting in Geneva.”

Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Tehran and Sylvia Westall in Vienna; editing by Philippa Fletcher

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