WASHINGTON -- Iran hedged Friday on accepting a deal that would transfer most of its low-enriched uranium out of the country to be converted for peaceful uses, saying it wants more time to study the deal and suggesting that it prefers a different approach.
The draft proposal, which Western powers hope will set back the clock on Iran's suspected nuclear-weapons program, was agreed to formally Friday by the United States, Russia and France, whose envoys discussed it with Iran this week in Vienna, Austria,.
Iran, however, as it often has in past nuclear negotiations, sent mixed signals about whether it would agree.
If Tehran rejects the plan, it would cast doubt on President Barack Obama's hopes of finding a diplomatic solution to the confrontation over Iran's nuclear program, and probably would lead to increased calls in Congress for tough new financial sanctions.
Earlier Friday, Iranian state television said that Iran was waiting for a response to its earlier, alternative plan to import enriched uranium to fuel a reactor in Tehran that produces nuclear isotopes for medical uses.
Several hours later, however, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, said in a statement that Iran had informed it that, "It is considering the proposal in depth and in a favorable light, but it needs time until the middle of next week to provide a response."
Friday had been the deadline for agreeing to the proposal.
Under the plan, Iran would ship about three-quarters of its stock of low-enriched uranium, thought to be about 3,000 pounds, to Russia. Russia would provide it with an equivalent amount of more highly enriched uranium suitable for fueling the Tehran reactor. The metal would be sent to France first to be fashioned into reactor fuel rods.
U.S. and European officials consider the plan a way to reduce Iran's uranium cache, which they fear it will try to use to make nuclear weapons, while meeting what Iran says are its civilian nuclear needs.
Iran agreed in principle to the idea at a high-level, seven-nation meeting in Geneva on Oct. 1, but in the weeks since it's equivocated about whether it would go through with it.
U.S. and European officials said they weren't surprised that Iran was seeking to string out the talks.
"I can't say it's positive. But it's nothing very surprising either," said a European diplomat, who spoke only on condition of anonymity as the diplomat wasn't authorized to talk to journalists.
Mike Hammer, a spokesman for the National Security Council at the White House, said that now that the United States had signed on to the agreement formally, "We are waiting to see if all the parties accept (IAEA) Director General (Mohamed) ElBaradei's proposal so that implementation can begin."
On Sunday, IAEA experts are scheduled to begin inspecting a previously covert enrichment facility near the holy city of Qom that Iran only recently acknowledged to the agency that it's building.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said there was "every indication" that those inspections would begin as scheduled.
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