2 nuke fuel options on table:Iran

TEHRAN: Iran said on Monday it could ship out some of its low-enriched uranium to be upgraded abroad or buy the fuel directly, as a UN team was due to carry out further checks on a newly-revealed atomic plant.

Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Iran was mulling the UN-brokered deal which envisages sending Tehran's low-enriched uranium (LEU) abroad to be converted into nuclear fuel and would announce a decision within days.

"For the supply of (nuclear) fuel, we may buy it like in the past or we may deliver a part of our (low-enriched uranium) fuel that we don't need now," Mottaki told the official IRNA news agency, indicating for the first time that Tehran could possibly agree to the UN-drafted deal of transporting the LEU.

"Both options are on the table."

Mottaki is also the most senior official to talk about buying the fuel directly from a foreign supplier since the UN atomic watchdog brokered deal was suggested earlier last week.

The UN-brokered deal was proposed first by world powers through the UN atomic watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mottaki said.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also suggested this arrangement a day before October 1 high-profile talks in Geneva between six world powers and Tehran about Western concerns over Iran's nuclear programme.

Western powers back the UN-brokered deal and are keen that Iran's LEU be taken out as they suspect Tehran would process it further on its own to higher purity levels and use it to make atomic weapons.

Tehran denies the charge.

France has said the deal aims to transport 1,200 kilos of Iran's LEU to Moscow to be converted into fuel. Iran is estimated to have 1,500 kilos of LEU at its uranium enrichment plant in the central city of Natanz.

But the UN-led offer has met with tough opposition from some top Tehran officials who suspect Western powers of creating obstacles for Iran's uranium enrichment drive, which they ultimately want suspended.

Enrichment of uranium is the most controversial aspect of Tehran's nuclear programme as enriched uranium can be used for generating electricity -- as Tehran says it is doing -- or to make the fissile core of an atom bomb.

"Making a decision to choose which option is on the agenda of the Islamic republic, and in the next few days the decision will be announced," Mottaki said, adding that Tehran was still "examining" the UN-drafted deal.

Lawmaker Alaeddin Borujerdi who heads parliament's committee on national security and foreign policy, has been critical of the UN-brokered deal but on Monday said in published remarks that Iran should give its LEU "in a gradual way" as it would ensure Tehran's right to enrich uranium.

But in what appeared to be a diplomatic move, Mottaki also raised the possibility that Iran could actually buy the fuel directly, telling IRNA that close ally China was "welcome" to provide the Islamic republic with the fuel, but added Iran will "not give up enrichment rights."

On Sunday, Mohsen Rezai, secretary of the Expediency Council, Iran's top political arbitration body, said a nuclear fuel accord with the West was not a problem but Iran must "keep 1,100 kilos of LEU."

A four-member team of UN experts, meanwhile, was expected to conduct more checks on Iran's controversial second uranium enrichment plant on Monday, the second day of their visit to Iran.

The plant is being built inside a mountain near the Shiite holy city of Qom, south of Tehran. It is adjacent to a military base and hence heavily guarded in case of any air strike by archfoes US or Israel.

The inspectors are checking the site to verify whether it was designed for peaceful nuclear purposes, as its disclosure on September 21 had fuelled fresh concerns in the West on Tehran's uranium enrichment drive.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, expected to arrive in Tehran later Monday, downplayed Western concerns that Iran wants to build nuclear weapons as "gossip," The Guardian newspaper reported.

"So although Iran doesn't have a weapon, those who say Iran shouldn't have them are those countries which do," he said in an interview.

Moscow, Iran's close ally, too urged world powers to have "maximum patience" with Tehran over the nuclear issue.