VIENNA, Austria - Iran has formally responded to a nuclear fuel swap proposal backed by the world's major powers with a counteroffer effectively rejecting their demand that Tehran quickly export most of the material it would need to make a warhead, diplomats said Tuesday.
For months, Iranian officials have used the media to criticize the plan and offer alternatives to one of its main conditions - that the Islamic republic ship out most of its stock of enriched uranium and then wait for up to a year for its return in the form of fuel rods for its Tehran research reactor.
While critical of such statements, the United States and its allies said they did not constitute a formal response to the plan, first drawn up in early October in a landmark meeting in Geneva between Iran and the six world powers, and then refined later that month in Vienna talks among Iran, the U.S., Russia and France.
The diplomats told The Associated Press that Iran first submitted such a formal response to the International Atomic Energy Agency earlier this month in a Jan. 6 meeting between Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's chief representative to the IAEA, and agency chief Yukiya Amano. They disagreed on whether the response was oral or written.
The IAEA-brokered talks in Vienna came up with a draft proposal that would take 70 per cent of Iran's low-enriched uranium to reduce its stockpile of material that could be enriched to a higher level, and possibly be used to make nuclear weapons.
That uranium would be returned about a year later as refined fuel rods, which can power reactors but cannot be readily turned into weapons-grade material. Iran maintains its nuclear program is only for the peaceful purpose of generating energy.
The Geneva talks grouped the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany around the negotiating table with Iran. Diplomats from two of those big powers said Tuesday Iran's formal counterproposal was essentially a rehash of an already publicly floated offer that fell far short of the six nations' expectations.
In its submission, Iran was offering to exchange enriched uranium only on domestic soil and only simultaneously for research reactor fuel, said the diplomats, who asked for anonymity because their information was confidential.
That would delay any exchange for at least a year or so - the time needed to make the rods for the Tehran reactor. And that, in turn would give Iran time to increase its enriched uranium stockpile to a level where it would still have enough to make a nuclear weapon even if it exported the 1.2 tons (1,100 kilograms) specified in the original draft agreement.
In addition, the Iranian counterproposal calls for exchanges in several tranches, said the diplomats. That, too, runs counter to the Western wish that Iran ship out most of its present accumulation of enriched uranium in one batch and thereby leave it with not enough to make a weapon.
Repeated calls to the cell-phone number of Soltanieh, the Iranian chief IAEA delegate, were not answered Tuesday.
Around 2,200 pounds of low-enriched uranium are needed to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a single nuclear warhead, according to experts. Iran is believed to have well over that amount in its stockpiles and its thousands of centrifuges churn out new material by the day.
Iran points to nuclear deals with Western companies and governments that were put on ice after the Islamic Revolution overthrew the previous regime three decades ago in arguing it cannot trust that its interlocutors will deliver the fuel rods if it agrees to export most of its enriched uranium on good faith.
It argues that its nuclear program is aimed at creating a peaceful nuclear energy network to serve its growing population. The U.S. and other nations believe Iran's nuclear program has the goal of creating atomic weapons.
The United States and its Western allies have been pushing for a fourth round of U.N. sanctions. But with Russia, and especially China, skeptical of any new U.N. penalties, they have to tread carefully to maintain six power unity on how to deal with the Islamic Republic.
A meeting Saturday of senior diplomats from the six powers focused on possible new sanctions but participants said it reached no agreement.
Concerns include Iran's refusal to heed U.N. Security Council demands that it freeze its enrichment program; fears that it may be hiding more nuclear facilities after its belated revelations that it was building a secret fortified enrichment plant, and its stonewalling of an IAEA probe of alleged programs geared to developing nuclear arms.