Vienna: World powers will seek to finalize an agreement with Iran next week on processing its uranium abroad to help allay Western fears it is developing nuclear weapons.
But Iran has dampened Western expectations it is ready to seal the deal. "Time is on our side," a senior Iranian official said. Tehran would send junior officials rather than its nuclear energy chief to the talks starting on Monday in Vienna, he said.
The International Atomic Energy Agency was ready for up to three days of talks on its premises but no one knew how long they would run, a diplomat close to the U.N. watchdog said.
Iran won itself a reprieve from the threat of harsher U.N. sanctions by engaging six powers in rare high-level talks on October 1 in Geneva that opened the door to detente over its disputed nuclear program after a seven-year standoff.
Iran stuck to its refusal to curb uranium enrichment. But it made two gestures of transparency that the powers touted as a basis for further steps they say Iran should make to disprove suspicions of a clandestine agenda to develop nuclear weapons.
Iran granted U.N. inspections at a hitherto hidden uranium enrichment site, and agreed in principle to have Iranian uranium processed in Russia and France for use by a Tehran reactor that makes cancer-care isotopes but is running out of imported fuel.
Two days later, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei pinned down October 25 to start surveillance of the site near Qom.
The United States, Britain, France and Germany indicate they will pursue sanctions targeting Iran`s vital oil sector if the diplomacy begun in Geneva does not get Iran to temper and open up its nuclear program to scrutiny by the end of this year.
The Vienna talks to flesh out technical and legal aspects of the uranium proposal will be the first chance for Iran to make good on new prospects for nuclear cooperation raised in Geneva.
But the proposal faces pitfalls due to differences over exactly what was agreed on October 1 and what each side wants out of the deal, and Iran`s continued refusal to curb enrichment.
Western diplomats said Iran assented in principle to sending about 80 percent of its declared stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia for further refinement, then on to France for fabrication into fuel assemblies.
The material would then be returned for use by the Tehran reactor to replace fuel, obtained from Argentina in 1993 but set to run out in about a year, in a form resistant to being enriched to a very high -- or weapons-grade -- degree.
For world powers, the deal`s benefit lies in greatly cutting Iran`s LEU stockpile. This has no apparent civilian use since Iran has no operating nuclear power plants, but is enough to fuel one atomic bomb, if Tehran chose to purify it further.
Iran, which says it is enriching uranium only for future electricity, would save its medical isotope production despite sanctions that make it hard for it to import nuclear materials.