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Iran and Turkey reach unexpected accord on enriched uranium

Iran has agreed to ship most of its enriched uranium to Turkey, in a nuclear fuel swap that could ease the crisis over the country's disputed nuclear programme. Turkey says the deal removes the need for further UN sanctions.

As initially laid out, the swap proposal would have removed 2,640 pounds -- nearly 80 percent -- of Iran's stockpile of low-enriched uranium. But because Iran has continued to enrich uranium since the plan was first raised, a deal based on the same terms would remove only about 50 percent of the country's stockpile.

In the meantime, Iran has started enriching uranium to an even higher level -- from 3.5 percent to 19.75 percent -- and Iranian officials said they will keep doing so, even though the need for that enrichment has now been negated by the swap deal announced Monday.

Significantly, the text of the new deal does not mention whether Iran's nuclear program would be on the table in future talks. Tehran, which insists the program is solely for energy purposes, has repeatedly said it is not up for discussion, and the Brazilian-Turkish deal reaffirmed Iran's right to enrich uranium and even offered the prospect of cooperation "on nuclear power plant and research reactors construction."

The text gives Iran the right to terminate the deal at any point. It also says the new fuel must be delivered within a year, which might be a technical impossibility.

In a lengthy statement, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs reacted cautiously, saying the proposal "must now be conveyed clearly and authoritatively" to the International Atomic Energy Agency and that "the United States and international community continue to have serious concerns."

European and Russian officials also reacted skeptically. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, said in Washington that the Iranian agreement should not hold up a new U.N. sanctions resolution. "I don't think the agreement and resolution should be closely linked," he said at a Nixon Center luncheon. "I wouldn't be surprised if the resolution would be passed or voted on soon."

The biggest question is whether China -- a veto-holding member of the Security Council and long reluctant to support new sanctions -- will use the latest twist as an excuse to delay or water down any new resolution.

Chinese officials expressed less skepticism than other key players with Iran. "We welcome the latest diplomatic steps by the relevant countries and hope relevant parties continue to make positive moves," said Chinese Embassy spokesman Wang Baodong.

Erdbrink reported from Tehran.

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