TEHRAN - Iran wants major amendments within the framework of a U.N. nuclear fuel deal which it broadly accepts, state media said, a move that could unravel the plan and expose Tehran to the threat of harsher sanctions.
The European Union's foreign policy chief said on Tuesday there was no need to rework the U.N. draft and he and France's foreign minister suggested Tehran would rekindle demands for tougher international sanctions if it tried to undo the plan.
Among the central planks of the plan opposed by Iran -- but requested by the West to cut the risk of an Iranian atom bomb -- was for it to send most of its low-enriched uranium reserve abroad for processing all in one go, state television said.
Iran says it is enriching uranium only for power plant fuel, not for nuclear warheads. But its history of nuclear secrecy and continued restrictions on U.N. inspections have raised Western suspicions Iran is latently pursuing nuclear weapons capability.
Citing an unnamed official, the Iranian state Arabic-language satellite television station al Alam said on Tuesday Iran would present its response to the proposed agreement within 48 hours, a week after a deadline set by its author, U.N. nuclear watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei.
Al Alam said Iran would agree to the general framework of the draft proposal but will request some important amendments.
It did not elaborate on the changes Tehran would seek to the draft agreement ElBaradei hammered out in consultations with Iran, Russia, France and the United States in Vienna last week.
But senior lawmakers have said Iran should import foreign fuel rather than send abroad by the end of this year much of its own low-enriched uranium (LEU) stock -- a crucial strategic asset in talks with world powers -- as the proposal stipulates.
Iran's foreign minister said on Monday it may want to do both under the deal, hinting Tehran could ship out much less LEU than the amount big powers want to delay by at least a year the possibility of Iran weaponizing enrichment.
The draft pact calls for Iran to transfer around 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 a research reactor that produces radio-isotopes for cancer treatment.
HIGH-LEVEL UNDERSTANDINGS IN GENEVA
Understandings on the fuel plan and U.N. monitoring of a newly-disclosed enrichment site under construction were forged at Geneva talks on October 1 between Iran and six world powers -- the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain.
A team of U.N. inspectors arrived in Iran early on Sunday to visit the new site 160 km south of Tehran. Western diplomats said Iran was forced to reveal the plant to the IAEA last month after learning that Western spy services had detected it.
Iran's pledges in Geneva won itself a reprieve from sanctions targeting its oil sector but Western powers stressed they would not wait indefinitely for Tehran to follow through.
They see the two deals as litmus tests of Iran's stated intent to use refined uranium only for civilian energy, and a basis for more ambitious negotiations on curbing enrichment by Tehran to resolve a standoff over its nuclear aspirations.
The parties tentatively agreed in Geneva to reconvene toward the end of October but the hold-up in the fuel proposal and the ongoing inspector trip seemed to rule out fresh talks this week.
It's not a good sign ... it is a bad indication, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told reporters at an EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg, referring to the latest, ambiguous Iranian statements.
Time is running out for the Iranians... This (Middle East) region is inflammable. It's an explosive circle and I do not think that in such a context the Iranians can play for time. That is very dangerous, he said.
If there is the necessity -- but we might not see it until the end of the year -- we would start work on new sanctions, Kouchner added.
Diplomats said the EU ministers had already asked the EU executive to look into further sanctions that could be imposed.
ElBaradei said Iran could not evade shifting most of its LEU abroad if it expected to allay mistrust.
That's important, absolutely. Our objective is to reduce tension and create a climate of confidence. Removing this material would provide a year for negotiating in peace and quiet, he told the French weekly l'Express.
This would allow the Iranians to show that they are speaking the truth, if this is the case, that they are indeed enriching uranium for peaceful purposes, he said.
Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said on Monday Iran would announce its decision on the pact in the next few days.
Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of parliament's Foreign Affairs and National Security committee, said that if any LEU went abroad, it should be only in small, staggered batches.
That is a non-starter for Western and U.N. officials since there would be no net drawdown of Iran's LEU stockpile.
(Additional reporting by Hossein Jaseb, Hashem Kalanatari and Reza Derakhshi in Tehran, David Brunnstrom and Julien Toyer in Luxembourg; Writing by Mark Heinrich; editing by Myra MacDonald)