Iran says it’s willing to ship out uranium

In comments that could signal either a change of course or more diplomatic maneuvering, Iran’s president said Tuesday that Tehran would be willing to ship enriched uranium abroad “for four or five months” in exchange for fuel for a Tehran medical reactor.

In a televised interview, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said “there is no problem” with sending an unspecified amount of Iran’s nuclear fuel abroad as part of a United Nations-backed plan to ease concern about the Islamic Republic’s nuclear research program.

He said Iran would “sign a contract” to give up uranium it has enriched to 3.5% in exchange for uranium enriched to 20% for the ailing Tehran medical reactor.

“If we allow them to take it, there is no problem,” he said.

Until now, Iranian officials had said they wanted a simultaneous exchange of nuclear fuel carried out on Iran’s soil, a condition described as impossible by the plan’s main backers, the International Atomic Energy Agency, France, Russia and the United States. They said it would take a year to transfer the nuclear fuel to Russia, further refine it and take it to France to be prepared for the medical reactor.

But Ahmadinejad did not specify how much fuel Iran was willing to give up. Obama administration officials had demanded that Iran allow the transfer of about 70% of its nuclear fuel supply, reducing it below the threshold necessary to make a nuclear weapon and creating the diplomatic breathing room to forge a broader deal with the Islamic Republic.

Western diplomats working on the nuclear issue said recent talks with Iran had gone nowhere, and that Iran had yet to even submit a formal written response to the nuclear-fuel swap offer, presented last autumn by the IAEA in Vienna. They accused Iran of foot-dragging in an attempt to provide diplomatic cover for China and Russia, who have been reluctant to agree to harsh sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.

A U.S. official reiterated Washington’s position that the original proposal was not up for renegotiation.

“There has been some discussion about details, but the deal is the deal and the Iranians need only to tell the IAEA they are prepared to take it, and we can move forward from there,” said U.S. State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid, according to the Associated Press.

In the same televised interview, Ahmadinejad said Iran might be willing to exchange American prisoners Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Joshua Fattal for Iranians held in U.S. prisons.

“Some of the citizens of our country have been stolen by them from other countries,” said Ahmadinejad, adding that the United States has also pressured other governments to hand over Iranian citizens.

“This is very bad; it ties our hands. There are talks at hand, and once concluded we may be able to make a swap.”

The three Americans were arrested and jailed by Iranian authorities six months ago after they allegedly crossed into Iran while hiking near the Iran-Iraq border.