VIENNA – VIENNA (AP) — Iran has agreed to give the U.N. nuclear monitoring agency greater inspection and monitoring rights to a sensitive site where it is enriching uranium to higher levels, diplomats said Friday.
The move — indirectly confirmed by a senior Iranian envoy — comes as Tehran mounts a diplomatic offensive meant to stave off new U.N. sanctions for its defiance of Security Council demands that it curb nuclear activities that could be used to make weapons.
Iran began enriching uranium to near 20 percent two months ago and says it will be turned into fuel rods for research reactors that manufacture medical isotopes for cancer patients. It says it was forced to take this step because the big powers refused to meet it half way on a moribund plan that would have supplied the rods from abroad.
The International Atomic Energy Agency had pushed in vain for greater access to the enrichment operation since the start of the project, seeking to realign monitoring cameras already set up to oversee Iran's long-standing enrichment plant that is churning out much-lower-level uranium. It has also been asking for more frequent inspections, said the diplomats, who asked for anonymity because their information is confidential.
They said Iran agreed in principle about 10 days ago to some — but not all— of the oversight the IAEA had asked for.
"They have not agreed to the full measures sought by the agency but enough so that the agency would be happy" after being stonewalled for two months, said one of three diplomats, speaking to The Associated Press.
Ali Asghar Soltanieh, the chief Iranian envoy to the IAEA, indirectly confirmed agreement, saying the two sides had "constructive talks" on the issue.
Iran last year rejected a U.N.-backed plan that offered nuclear fuel rods in exchange for Iran's stock of lower-level enriched uranium. That swap would have curbed Tehran's capacity to make a nuclear bomb.
Six world powers — the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany — endorsed the confidence-building proposal. Backed by the IAEA, the deal foresaw shipping 2,420 pounds (1,100 kilograms) of low-enriched uranium from Iran to Russia to be enriched to 20 percent, then to France for processing into fuel rods for the research reactor that makes nuclear isotopes needed for medical purposes.
Beyond meeting Iran's needs, the U.S. and its allies saw the proposal as delaying Iran's ability to make a nuclear weapon by stripping it of much of the enriched uranium it would need for such a project. Tehran denies seeking such arms, insisting it is enriching only for an envisaged network of power-generating nuclear reactors.
Though Iran initially rejected the proposal, its leaders have tried to keep the offer on the table, proposing variations without accepting the Vienna-based IAEA's terms. The main stumbling block has been Tehran's refusal to ship the bulk of its low-enriched uranium abroad — a condition insisted upon by the West as key to slowing Iran's accumulation of enriched uranium and thereby any bomb-making capacities.
In the meantime, Iran has pushed ahead with further enriching uranium to 20 percent on its own, announcing this week that it has produced five kilograms (11 pounds) of the material, though it is not clear if it is able to take the next step of turning them into fuel rods for the reactor.
Any success in enriching up to that level brings Iran closer to quickly being able to make weapons grade uranium that serves as the core of nuclear warheads.
The Iranian concession comes just before the weekend visit of Iran's foreign minister to Austria on the first stop of an international campaign aimed at weakening a U.S.-backed push for new U.N. sanctions.
Manouchehr Mottaki will meet his Austrian counterpart, Michael Spindelegger, on Sunday, Austria's Foreign Ministry said.
Austria is a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, which is preparing to consider a fourth round of sanctions on Tehran for its nuclear defiance.
Before his trip, Mottaki said Iran wants to talk with all council members except the U.S about the nuclear fuel swap deal. Iranian delegations, he said, will be pushing for agreement on the proposal in visits to veto-wielding permanent council members China and Russia and rotating members, including Uganda, where President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is expected to arrive Friday.
For months, Russia and China have blocked attempts by the U.S., Britain and France — the three other permanent Security Council members — to introduce new sanctions.
Russia has recently expressed a readiness to support "smart" sanctions that do not target the Iranian people. China also appears willing but is insisting on further watering down present drafts submitted by the West.
Only permanent council members could veto proposed sanctions, but strong opposition by non-permanent members could strengthen Iran's case.
Brazil and Turkey, also serving two-year terms on the Security Council, already have indicated a reluctance to support new sanctions, and Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is due in Tehran on May 15.
One of the diplomats said Mottaki would also be meeting IAEA chief Yukiya Amano but added the Iranian was bringing nothing new to the table that could unlock the impasse on the fuel swap.