Iranian officials to argue against more sanctions

VIENNA (AP) — Iran's foreign minister will visit Austria this week, the first stop of an international campaign aimed at weakening a U.S.-backed push for new U.N. sanctions because of Tehran's defiance of Security Council demands that it curb its nuclear program.

Manouchehr Mottaki will meet Michael Spindelegger, his Austrian counterpart, on Sunday, Austria's Foreign Ministry said Thursday.

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.

Ahead of his trip, Mottaki said Iran wants to talk with all council members except the U.S about a nuclear fuel deal that was originally touted as a possible way to ease the international standoff over Iran's nuclear program but has since hit a dead end.

The talks halted after Iran last year rejected a U.N.-backed plan that offered nuclear fuel rods for Tehran's research reactor 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 International Atomic Energy Agency, 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 being quickly able to make weapons grade uranium that serves as the core of nuclear warheads.

Mottaki on Monday said Iranian delegations will be pushing for agreement on the nuclear fuel deal in visits to veto-wielding permanent council members China and Russia and rotating members, including Uganda, where President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is expected to arrive on 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.

A senior diplomat from an IAEA member nation said Mottaki also would use his Austria visit to meet with International Atomic Energy Agency chief Yukiya Amano. The diplomat demanded anonymity because his information was confidential.