Iran: Nuclear fuel swap a chance to boost trust

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — As the United States builds its case for stiffer sanctions against Iran, Tehran's foreign minister appeared to voice new enthusiasm Tuesday for a U.N.-backed nuclear fuel deal, calling it a chance to boost trust with the West.

The U.S. and its allies are locked in a standoff with Iran over its disputed nuclear program. Washington and other western powers fear Tehran is using the program to build nuclear arms. Iran denies the charges, and says its program only aims to generate electricity.

Iran initially rejected a 2009 U.N.-backed plan that offered nuclear fuel rods to Tehran in exchange for Iran's stock of lower-level enriched uranium. The swap would curb Tehran's capacity to make a nuclear bomb.

But at the same time, the country's leaders have worked to keep the offer on the table, proposing variations, though without accepting the terms set in the U.N. proposal. The move may aim to undermine support for sanctions in the U.N. Security Council, where the U.S. is lobbying heavily for Russian and Chinese backing.

Speaking Tuesday after talks with his Turkish counterpart, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said if the West is serious about the nuclear swap, "the case can be a multilateral trust-making opportunity for all sides, including Iran."

"If the principle of exchange of fuel is a consensus, there is the possibility for an exchange of views, of understanding for mutual trust," Mottaki said.

Mottaki's comments come a day after he said Iran wants direct talks about the deal with all the U.N. Security Council members, except one with which it would have indirect talks — a reference to the United States, which with Tehran has no relations.

Under the U.N. proposal, Iran was to send 2,420 pounds (1,100 kilograms) of low-enriched uranium abroad, where it would be further enriched to 20 percent and converted into fuel rods, which would then be returned to Iran. Sending its low-enriched uranium abroad would leave Iran with insufficient stocks to further purify to weapons-grade level.

Tehran needs the fuel rods to power a research reactor in the Iranian capital that makes nuclear isotopes needed for medical purposes. Once converted into rods, uranium can no longer be used for making weapons.

Iran has made several counteroffers, including for a swap of less low-enriched uranium, sending it in batches or carrying out a simultaneous trade. But the U.S. and its allies say the changes would obviate the goal of rendering Iran unable to build a warhead.

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 of the material (11 pounds), though it is not clear if it is able to take the next step of turning them into fuel rods for the reactor.

Speaking alongside Mottaki, Ahmet Davutoglu reiterated Turkey's offer to act as a mediator for a fuel exchange, and stressed Ankara seeks a diplomatic solution to Iran's nuclear standoff with the West.

The U.S. and its allies fear Iran's nuclear program aims to produce nuclear weapons, and are pushing for a fresh round of tougher sanctions in the UN Security Council on Tehran since it has refused to halt its uranium enrichment, a key process which could lead to making nuclear weapon if the enrichment goes beyond 90 percent.

The U.N. has already imposed three rounds of limited financial sanctions.

Iran, which currently enriches uranium up to 3.5 percent to make fuel for power plants.