Friday, December 25, 2009

TEHRAN — Iran would be willing to swap nuclear material with the West in Turkey, the foreign minister said in the country’s latest counteroffer to a U.N.-drafted deal aimed at thwarting Tehran’s ability to produce atomic weapons.

The U.N. proposal aims to ease concerns that Iran could build a nuclear weapon by reducing its stockpile of low-enriched uranium. Under the proposal, the uranium would be shipped to France and Russia in exchange for more highly enriched fuel rods that are not suitable for use in weapons.

Speaking on Iran’s state TV, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki suggested Turkey, which neighbors Iran and has good relations with the West, as a venue for exchanging nuclear material.

Iran “does not have a problem with Turkish soil” as the location for an exchange of enriched uranium for nuclear fuel, he said late Thursday.

In Turkey, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu welcomed the Iranian announcement and said his government is ready to do its best to help reach a diplomatic solution to the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program.

While Iran’s remarks signaled a slight change in stance — the country has said before it would only accept such an exchange on its own territory — they represent no significant shift in Iran’s policy.

The United States and its allies have demanded Iran accept the terms of the U.N.-brokered plan without changes. Under the plan, drafted last month, Iran would export its low-enriched uranium for further enrichment in Russia and France, where it would be converted into fuel rods. The rods, which Iran needs for a research reactor in Tehran, would be returned to the country about a year later.

Exporting the uranium would leave Iran temporarily without enough stockpiles to further enrich the uranium into the material for a nuclear warhead, and the rods that are returned could not be used to make weapons.

Iran, maintaining that its program is for generating electricity, says it has no intention of building a bomb.

At various times, Iran has proposed swapping material in batches, which would not necessarily reduce its ability to build a bomb. At other times it has insisted on a simultaneous swap inside Iran or threatened to just produce the fuel rods on its own.

The West needs to prove its good will toward Tehran first, Mr. Mottaki said in the interview.

“Exchange is acceptable,” he said. “They (the West) have to do the trust-building; then it is pursuable.”

Iran is able to produce the fuel on its own, Mottaki said, calling this a “preferable” option while adding that Iran is still ready for talks with the West.

“The ball in their own court; they should answer us,” Mr. Mottaki said. “Threat and sanctions are useless.”

Enrichment is at the core of the nuclear controversy. Low-enriched uranium is used to fuel a nuclear energy reactor, but highly enriched uranium can be turned into a nuclear warhead. Once converted into rods, the uranium cannot be enriched further.

The United Nations has demanded that Iran suspend all enrichment, a demand Tehran has refused, saying it has a right to develop the technology under the Nonproliferation Treaty. Iran has also defiantly announced it intends to build the 10 new uranium enrichment sites, drawing a forceful rebuke from the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency.

The United States and its allies are threatening to impose more sanctions on Iran if it does not cooperate.

Earlier this week, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismissed a year-end deadline set by the Obama administration and the West for Tehran to accept the U.N.-drafted deal and also shrugged off the threat of more sanctions.

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