Iran agreed Monday to ship most of its enriched uranium to Turkey in a nuclear fuel swap deal that could ease the international standoff over the country's disputed nuclear program, just as pressure mounts for tougher sanctions.
The deal was reached in talks with Brazil and Turkey, elevating a new group of mediators for the first time in the dispute over Iran's nuclear activities. There was no immediate comment from the United States and the other world powers that have led earlier negotiations as to whether the new deal would satisfy them and stave off a fourth round of U.N. sanctions.
Washington and allies have been pressing Iran for more than six months to accept a U.N.-drafted plan to send their low-enriched uranium stockpiles out of the country in exchange for reactor-ready fuel rods. Backers of the plan want to keep Iran from expanding its own enrichment capabilities, which some fear could serve as the backbone for a nuclear weapons program.
"It was agreed during the trilateral meeting of Iranian, Turkish and Brazilian leaders that Turkey will be the venue for swapping" Iran's stocks of enriched uranium for fuel rods, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said on state TV Monday.
Iran has previously issued positive signals about possible nuclear deals only to back off later in apparent diplomatic stalling tactics.
The deal would deprive Iran - at least temporarily - of the stocks of enriched uranium that it could process to the higher levels of enrichment needed in weapons production. The material returned to Iran in the form of fuel rods cannot be processed beyond its lower, safer levels. Iran needs the fuel rods to power an aging medical research reactor in Tehran that produces isotopes for cancer treatment.
The deal goes to the heart of international concern over Tehran's nuclear activities. Earlier negotiations led by Germany and the five permanent U.N. Security Council members - the U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China - have sought to stop Iran from enriching uranium altogether, and thereby deprive it of a possible pathway to nuclear weapons.
Monday's deal was announced after talks between Brazil's president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran.
Iranian Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi, who is also the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, called Monday's deal historic.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the deal meant "there is no longer any need for U.N. sanctions," Turkey's private NTV television quoted the minister as telling reporters in Iran.
The deal aims to revive a plan drafted by the U.N. in October that was ultimately rejected by Iran after some initial mixed signals. Many of the details appear to be the same.
Iran will ship most of its enriched uranium - about 2,600 pounds, or 1,200 kilograms - to Turkey to be kept under U.N. and Iranian supervision. In return, it will get fuel rods containing uranium enriched to higher levels needed for the research reactor, Mehmanparast said.
If Iran does not receive the fuel rods within a year, Turkey will be required to "immediately and unconditionally" return the uranium to Iran, said Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.
Iran feared that under the initial U.N. deal, if a swap fell through, its uranium stock could be seized permanently.
The process would begin one month after a final agreement is signed between Iran and its main negotiating partners, including the United States and the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Iran dropped an earlier demand for the fuel exchange to happen in stages, rather than providing its material in a single batch. It also dropped an insistence that the exchange happen inside Iran as well as a request to receive the fuel rods right away.
The U.N. draft has a gap of about a year to allow time for the rods to be manufactured in France.
While kept under international supervision in Turkey, the uranium would still be considered Iranian property until Iran receives the fuel rods, Mottaki said.
Iran first reached out to Turkey and Brazil in its efforts to avoid tougher U.N. sanctions for its refusal to stop enriching uranium altogether. Both countries are non-permanent members of the Security Council.
Monday's deal was signed by the foreign ministers of the three countries.
Iran says its enrichment program is only for peaceful uses, such as producing fuel for nuclear power plants.
Mehmanparast said a letter will be sent to the IAEA within a week to pave the way for a final agreement.
"Should they be ready, an agreement will be signed between us and the group," he said, referring to the U.S., France, Russia and the IAEA.
A month later, the uranium - currently enriched to a level of 3.5 percent - would be sent to Turkey, where it would be stored under IAEA and Iranian supervision, Mehmanparast said. The fuel rods would contain material processed to just under 20 percent.
Enrichment of 90 percent is needed to produce material for nuclear warheads.
This program aired on May 17, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.