Senior Iran MPs reject uranium deal

As Russia warns of further sanctions, the parliament's head of national security committee says "The option is over."

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An already troubled deal to defuse the Iranian nuclear crisis suffered a major setback yesterday when senior lawmakers rejected any possibility of Tehran sending abroad uranium for further enrichment. Russia, which has close political and economic ties with Iran, warned Tehran that it risked further sanctions if it took a "less than constructive position". The Iranian deputies' tough remarks are not the final word from Tehran, where the country's top security decision-making body was said to be still deliberating the United Nations-backed proposals. But their posture intensifies pressure on Iran's government to reject the five-week-old plan, which has provoked strident criticism from reformist and conservative rivals of the president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who initially appeared to welcome it.

Iran is still gripped by political instability ignited by his disputed re-election, and the country's divided leadership has sent conflicting signals over the nuclear proposals. "This option of giving our enriched uranium gradually or in one go is over now," said Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the influential head of parliament's national security and foreign policy committee. The UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which brokered the tentative accord between Iran and the US, Russia and France last month, said it was "still waiting for the formal response" from Tehran.

If the plan collapses Iran would face the threat of further sanctions while Israel, the region's sole, if undeclared, nuclear-armed power, would renew its sabre-rattling against the Islamic republic. Although exasperated, the West is keeping the door ajar for a change of heart in Tehran. The US will be encouraged by Moscow's public pressure on Iran yesterday. "I do not want that all this ends up with the adopting of international sanctions because sanctions, as a rule, lead in a complex and dangerous direction," the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said. "But if there is no movement forward then no one is going to exclude such a scenario."

Tehran has relied on Russia, a nominal ally, along with China, to shield it from tougher sanctions at the UN Security Council over its nuclear programme. The fuel exchange accord calls for Tehran to send abroad 1,200kg of its low-enriched uranium (LEU), about 75 per cent of its stockpile, in one batch by the end of the year. Russia would enrich it further before sending it to France for conversion into fuel plates that Iran needs for a medical reactor. The vital confidence-building measure would delay Iran's potential to build a nuclear bomb by a year, according to nuclear experts, buying time for a comprehensive settlement of the prolonged nuclear standoff.

But Mr Boroujerdi insisted: "Nothing will be given of the 1,200kg (of LEU) - to the other side in exchange for 20 per cent enriched fuel, not in one batch nor in several. It is out of the question." Mohammad ElBaradei, the outgoing IAEA chief, spoke last week of the difficulties in brokering a deal because of the legacy of suspicion between Tehran and Washington. "There's total distrust on the part of Iran," he told The New York Times.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final decision on the nuclear issue, voiced his suspicion of the US last week, dimming the prospects of a nuclear breakthrough. "Whenever the US offers a smile, it hides a dagger behind its back," he said. On Friday, Manouchehr Mottaki, Iran's foreign minister, tentatively kept open the possibility of transferring Iranian uranium abroad. "We have three options - enrich the fuel [for the medical reactor in Tehran] ourselves, buy it directly or exchange uranium for fuel." Only the last option is acceptable to the West.

Mr Mottaki said Iran was preparing to supply the IAEA with further details of its response to the proposals and expects to have further negotiations. The US and France have said the time for talking is over. Iranian requests to buy the fuel it needs for its medical reactor or to it enrich its own LEU to the higher 20 per cent level needed for the facility, negate the point of the plan. The aim is to remove the bulk of Iran's LEU stockpile and transform it into reactor fuel rods that cannot be used for weaponisation. Tehran insists its programme is peaceful.

Iran had been due to give its response to the proposed fuel transfer deal by October 23 but gave only an initial reply, indicating it would agree to export LEU only in stages.