TEHRAN - Iran said on Monday it could endorse a U.N. deal for it to send potential nuclear fuel abroad for processing, contradicting lawmakers who rejected the plan sought by world powers as a trap.
The remark by Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki was the most positive yet from a senior Iranian official and hinted at fierce backroom debate between hardliners and moderates in the faction-ridden Iranian leadership on whether to accept the deal.
France's Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said it was urgent for world powers to make a deal with Tehran to avert an Israeli strike.
They (Israel) will not tolerate an Iranian bomb. We know that, all of us. So that is an additional risk and that is why we must decrease the tension and solve the problem. Hopefully we are going to stop this race to a confrontation, Kouchner said.
There is the time that Israel will offer us before reacting, because Israel will react as soon as they know clearly that there is a threat, he added in an interview published by British newspaper The Daily Telegraph.
In Iran, U.N. inspectors were examining a hitherto secret uranium enrichment site bunkered inside a mountain to verify Tehran's stance that the plant was meant to make only low-enriched fuel for electricity, not the high-purity version for nuclear arms.
Understandings on the fuel plan and outside access to the enrichment plant under construction were struck at high-level Geneva talks between Iran and six world powers on October 1.
They see the deals as litmus tests of Iran's stated intent to use enriched uranium only for peaceful ends, and a basis for more ambitious negotiations on curbing enrichment in Iran to defuse a crisis over its disputed nuclear aspirations.
Mottaki said Iran could either send part of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) stockpile abroad for specialized processing into fuel for a Tehran nuclear medicine facility that is running out of it, or buy the material from foreign suppliers.
In order to obtain this fuel, we might spend money as in the past or we might present part of the fuel that we have right now, and currently do not need, for further processing, he was quoted by the official news agency IRNA as saying.
He said the Islamic Republic would announce its decision in the next few days. Iran missed a Friday deadline set by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief for giving a reply to the proposal he hammered out in consultations with Iran, Russia, France and the United States in Vienna last week.
Prominent lawmakers have said since then that Iran should not send out any of its LEU reserve, suggesting it was a strategic asset Tehran could not afford to relinquish while facing Western pressure to shelve enrichment entirely.
IRAN LEADING TOWARD ACCEPTING DEAL?
But some officials have privately suggested Iran in the end is likely to accept the deal, although it remained unclear how much LEU Tehran would agree to shift abroad, and when.
One Tehran analyst, who declined to be named, said the outcry over the draft would allow Iran to present its eventual acceptance as a major concession in the hope this would deflate pressure on it to shelve enrichment, a step it rules out.
The draft pact calls for Iran to transfer some 80 percent of its known 1.5 metric tons 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 fuel a research reactor that produces radio-isotopes for cancer treatment.
The U.S. role would be upgrading the reactor's safety and instrumentation, Iran's envoy to the U.N. watchdog said.
For the powers, the deal's value lies in delaying Iran's potential to derive a bomb from its LEU stocks, now enough to yield one weapon. If 80 percent were removed, Iran would need about a year to replenish it at its current rate of output.
A leading Iranian MP said the Islamic state should send its low enriched uranium abroad in several phases for further processing, Iran's Arabic language al Alam television reported
Because the West has repeatedly violated agreements in the past, Iran should send its low enriched uranium abroad gradually and in several phases and necessary guarantees should be taken, said Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of parliament's Foreign Affairs and National Security committee, al Alam reported.
Western diplomats say the notion of Iran importing foreign fuel is a non-starter, and a delaying tactic if Tehran pursues it, since U.N. sanctions ban trade with Iran in nuclear goods that could be weaponized, such as enriched uranium.
Iran is years away from having any civilian nuclear power plants to run with LEU it is rapidly amassing, raising Western suspicions about the underlying goal of its enrichment campaign.
Western power diplomats say Iran was forced into revealing its second enrichment site near Qom to the IAEA a month ago because their intelligence agencies had already detected it.
The inspectors aimed to compare engineering designs to be provided by Iran with the actual look of the facility, interview scientists and other employees, and take soil samples to check for traces of activity of a military nuclear nature.
Iranian opposition exiles blew the whistle on Iran's first enrichment plant, at Natanz, in 2002. It has since expanded to industrial scale but is now under daily IAEA surveillance.
(Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi and Hashem Kalantari in Tehran; writing by Mark Heinrich; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)