Page last updated at 23:00 GMT, Saturday, 6 February 2010

West greets Iran nuclear claim with scepticism

Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki
Manouchehr Mottaki said "conducive ground" had been reached in talks

Western powers have responded with scepticism to a claim by Iran that a deal to swap enriched uranium for nuclear fuel could now be close.

Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told a security conference in Germany that an agreement could be reached in a "not too distant future".

But the US and European Union said they were unconvinced and Iran must make a meaningful offer or face new sanctions.

The head of the UN nuclear watchdog said dialogue should be accelerated.

China, which opposes further sanctions, said talks were at a "crucial stage".

The US and its allies fear Iran is attempting to develop nuclear weapons. Iran insists its nuclear programme is peaceful in purpose.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, in Ankara, cast doubt on Iran's talk of an imminent deal, telling reporters: "I don't have the sense that we're close to an agreement."

Our hand is still reaching out towards them [Iran]. But so far it's reaching out into nothingness
Guido Westerwelle
German foreign minister

If Iran was prepared to take up the proposal put forward by the so-called P5+1 - the US, Russia, China, UK and France plus Germany - on handing over its low-enriched uranium then it should take that message to the UN's nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, he said.

He suggested that Western powers needed to think about whether it was now time to take a "different tack" on Iran.

Meanwhile, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told the annual Munich security conference: "Our hand is still reaching out towards them [Iran]. But so far it's reaching out into nothingness.

"And I've seen nothing since yesterday [Friday] that makes me want to change that view."

The US National Security Adviser, General James Jones, warned of tighter sanctions and deeper international isolation for Iran.

And EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton told the conference that Iran must respond to the head of the IAEA over its nuclear programme.

Mined uranium ore is purified and reconstituted into solid form known as yellowcake
Yellowcake is chemically processed and converted into Uranium Hexafluoride gas
Gas is fed through centrifuges, where its isotopes separate and process is repeated until uranium is enriched
Low-level enriched uranium is used for nuclear fuel
Highly enriched uranium can be used in nuclear weapons

"There is a need to restore confidence in the peaceful nature of Iran's programme," she said, according to Reuters.

"This must be done by dialogue. But dialogue takes two, and I'm ready to engage in meaningful and productive talks that deal directly with the issues that trouble us."

The BBC Tehran correspondent Jon Leyne, reporting from London, says the strong suspicion is that the Iranian remarks are just another attempt to fend off new sanctions being proposed by the United States.

On Saturday, Mr Mottaki said he had had "a very good meeting" with IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano.

"We discussed and exchanged views on a wide range of issues - views about the proposal that is on the table," he said.

For his part, Mr Amano told reporters that Iran's foreign minister had made no new proposals to him.

"We had a very interesting discussion, and on my part I can currently say that dialogue is continuing and should be accelerated," he added.

Diplomatic manoeuvring

In January, diplomats said Iran had informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it did not accept the terms of the deal agreed in October by Iran, the IAEA and the P5+1.

In response, the US, Britain and France have been pressing for more sanctions and earlier this week circulated a discussion paper on further possible measures against the country.

The move came despite recent comments by Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad indicating that the country would have "no problem" sending much of its low-enriched uranium abroad so it could be processed into fuel - an arrangement envisaged by the October agreement.

Western diplomats reacted warily to Mr Ahmedinejad's comments.

But China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told the Munich conference that the P5+1 should remain patient and keep pursuing a diplomatic solution to the issue.

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