By Louis Charbonneau
VIENNA - The U.N. nuclear watchdog has offered to guarantee Iran a supply of fuel for its nuclear power plants so that Tehran would not need to enrich its own uranium, Western diplomats said on Friday.
Diplomats said that the head of the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed ElBaradei, made this offer to help France, Britain and Germany in their talks with Iran aimed at persuading the Islamic republic to abandon its controversial uranium enrichment programme.
"ElBaradei and the IAEA have offered to guarantee Iran's fuel supply," a Western diplomat familiar with the European Union's negotiations with the Iranians.
The diplomat said that the Iranians, who insist their nuclear programme is peaceful, have argued that if they give up their nuclear fuel production capabilities, they will never have a reliable source of fuel for their nuclear reactors.
Iran has demanded a guaranteed supply from the Europeans, but has not yet been satisfied with any of the proposals as to where the fuel would come from. So, this IAEA offer could help break the deadlock.
A IAEA guarantee would mean that Iran's fuel supply would not be subject to the political whims of countries such as Russia, which plans to provide Iran fuel for its Russian-built Bushehr reactor and to take back the burnt fuel from the plant.
"Iran is afraid that the U.S. could put pressure on Russia to halt its fuel supplies to Iran and they would not have fuel for their reactors," the diplomat said.
Iranian officials were not immediately available for comment.
The United States says Iran is using its atomic energy programme as a front to develop nuclear weapons and believes Iran is using the negotiations with the EU to buy time as it races to develop the capability to build an atom bomb.
Several diplomats confirmed the IAEA offer, but said the details have not been worked out. It is unclear if the offer would be acceptable to Iran, which says that enriching uranium is a sovereign right that it will never give up.
The IAEA declined to comment, but one diplomat close to the Vienna-based agency said that this idea was close to the U.N. agency's original mission when it was set up in the 1950s.
At that time, the IAEA was envisaged to be an authority that would oversee the allocation of nuclear material that could be used in weapons but would be intended for nuclear power plants.
French, British and German officials will meet with an Iranian delegation on Nov. 5 to continue talks on a possible suspension of Iran's enrichment programme, which could be used to develop fissile uranium for weapons.
The EU has warned Tehran it would back U.S. calls to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council, which can impose economic sanctions, if it did not agree to freeze all uranium enrichment activities before an IAEA board of governors meeting on Nov. 25.