BEIRUT — Iran said Friday that it would respond next week to a proposal to ship the bulk of its enriched uranium abroad to be turned into fuel for a medical research reactor. The delay plunged into doubt a deal aimed at easing the standoff over Iran's nuclear program.
Earlier in the day, the United States, Russia and France formally signed off on the plan, devised by representatives of the world powers, Iranian negotiators and International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei during talks in Vienna this week. But Iran, which faced the same Friday deadline for a response, told the agency that it needed more time.
Iran's envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, told state television that his government was "reviewing the text of the proposals that were drawn up by Mr. ElBaradei. . . . We are examining their various legal and technical dimensions before presenting a report."
In Washington, a State Department spokesman expressed hope that Iran would still back the proposal. The United States "would have preferred to have a response today," said Ian Kelly. "We approach this with a sense of urgency."
Under the proposal, lran would send as much as 80% of its enriched uranium to Russia and France to be further refined and fitted for a Tehran reactor used for cancer diagnosis and treatment, all under the authority of the IAEA, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog.
Tehran signaled a willingness to go along with the arrangement during talks in Vienna this week and Geneva last month, but has given pessimistic signals about the deal since.
Iran's indecisiveness could be a negotiating strategy or a sign that Tehran's political factions could not come to an agreement.
State television Friday cited an unnamed member of the Iranian nuclear negotiating team rejecting the proposal. Instead, the unnamed official reportedly said, Iran would rather buy fuel for the reactor from international suppliers.
"The Islamic Republic of Iran is prepared to purchase the fuel needed for the Tehran research reactor within the framework of a clear proposal," said the official, according to an article on the website of the state broadcasting network. "It is waiting for a constructive and confidence-building response."
But it was not immediately clear whether the statement represented Iran's response, and the spokesman for Iran's nuclear energy program could not be reached for comment on the issue.
On Thursday, Iran's deputy speaker of parliament also complained about the deal, saying the nation could itself further refine its 3.5% enriched reactor-grade fuel to the 20% enrichment necessary for a medical reactor.
Any attempt by Tehran to modify or spurn the proposal is likely to complicate the Obama administration's efforts to resolve the nuclear standoff through diplomacy. Such a move could revive a drive to impose harsh new economic sanctions on Iran, and add to suspicions that its nuclear program is aimed at developing weapons.
Natural uranium requires enrichment to a low grade for use in civilian power plants, to a slightly higher level of purity for use in medical research and to a high degree for use in weapons, though crude bombs can be made with lower-grade material.
Under the proposal, Iran would send 2,600 pounds of its reactor-grade fuel abroad by year's end, a Western diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Although the plan wouldn't end international concern about Iran's nuclear program, it would reduce Tehran's stockpile of fissile material below the threshold for building an atomic weapon while serving as a template for possible future compromises, experts say. Physicists say about 2,500 pounds of low-enriched uranium is needed to churn out the 80 pounds of weapons-grade uranium needed for one nuclear bomb.
The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization also announced that inspectors would arrive in Iran today to examine a recently disclosed enrichment facility near the city of Qom.
The facility's existence, previously discovered by Western intelligence agencies, has fueled worries that Iran may be building a clandestine nuclear program parallel to the one at known sites near the cities of Natanz, Esfahan and Arak.
Iran insists it is not legally obliged to declare nuclear facilities until six months before it introduces nuclear material into them, an argument disputed by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the West.
Times staff writer Christi Parsons in Washington and special correspondents Julia Damianova in Vienna and Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.