US doubts Iran claim nuclear deal close

ANKARA: US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates said Saturday he doubted a deal to send some of Iran's uranium abroad for enrichment was close, directly contradicting Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.

The latest spat comes amid Western powers' growing impatience with Iran over what they say is a failure to respond clearly to the enrichment proposal, amid suspicions the Islamic republic is trying to acquire a nuclear bomb.

"I don't have the sense we are close to an agreement," Gates told reporters in Ankara, the day after Mottaki said that Tehran was "serious" about sending some uranium abroad for enrichment and that a final deal was near.

"If Iran has decided to accept the proposal of the P5-plus-one, they should do that to the IAEA", (the International Atomic Energy Agency), he added, referring to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany.

Mottaki told the Munich Security Conference that "with regard to discussions with the different parties, I personally believe that we have created conducive ground for such an exchange in the not very distant future."

"Under the present conditions that we have reached, I think that we are approaching a final agreement that can be accepted by all parties."

He added that Iran "has shown it is serious about doing this, and we have shown it at the highest level," referring to remarks by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that Tehran would have "no problem" with the proposal.

However, Western powers have suspected a delaying tactic to avert a fourth round of UN Security Council sanctions against Iran and have urged Ahmadinejad to send a formal response to the IAEA.

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, also at the Munich Security Conference, said that Iran needed to respond directly to UN atomic agency in order to "build badly needed confidence."

"Iran must now respond to the director general of the IAEA... There is a proposal on the table, a creative attempt to build confidence with Iran, on a practical cooperation in the nuclear area."

Iran needs nuclear fuel to power its UN-monitored reactor but the West fears its uranium enrichment programme is masking efforts to produce atomic weapons -- claims vehemently denied by the Islamic republic.

In a bid to allay Western concerns, the IAEA made a proposal from the P5-plus-one group of countries that Tehran ship out its low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia and France to be further purified into reactor fuel.

Iran, which agreed in principle to the offer during talks with world powers in Geneva in October, later appeared to reject the deal and said it preferred a gradual swap of LEU with fuel -- preferably on Iranian soil.

It gave the West until January 31 to respond to its counter-proposals, with Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani insisting Saturday that the West was trying to dupe Iran.

"They (Western powers) say that you (Iran) must provide fuel for the Tehran reactor the way we say, and if you don't do this we will punish you," Larijani was quoted as saying by the Mehr news agency.

"But they know this is a political swindle and that they are trying to ensure Iran's enriched uranium" is removed from the Islamic republic.

Gates said that any discussion of "some kind of other deal on the research reactor" would have to take place within the formal setting of the Vienna-based IAEA.

"My view is, that's a discussion that the Iranians would better hold with the IAEA than at the Munich conference or in press conferences by president Ahmadenijad if they are prepared to take up the original proposal," he said.

He added that Iran should not waste time in accepting the proposal if it was serious, or face "a different tack."

"The reality is, the longer that this goes on and the longer they continue to enrich, the value of the Tehran research proposal as a reassurance to the international community diminishes," he warned.

Iran has "done nothing to reassure the international community", Gates said, adding that "various nations need to think about whether it's time for a different tack."