Day one of talks meant to persuade Iran to send most of its enriched uranium abroad - delaying its potential ability to make a nuclear bomb - ended inconclusively Monday with Teheran remaining uncommitted, diplomats said.
The negotiations got off to a "good start," the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Monhamed ElBaradei, said on emerging from Monday's session. Diplomats suggested, however, that little was accomplished outside of both sides outlining their positions.
Iran had signaled going into the meeting that it would not meet Western demands for a deal under which it would ship most of its enriched material out of the country.
Teheran has said it needs enriched uranium for nuclear fuel. But the West fears it could be used to make weapons, and the US says Iran is now one to six years away from being able to do so.
Monday's talks between Iran and the US, Russia and France were focused on a technical issue with huge strategic ramifications - whether Iran would be ready to farm out some of its uranium enrichment program to a foreign country.
ElBaradei appeared cautiously optimistic after the first day of closed meetings, saying most technical issues had been discussed and the parties would meet again Tuesday morning.
"We have had this afternoon quite a constructive meeting," ElBaradei told reporters. "We are off to a good start."
The delegations said little as they left the meeting. The chief Iranian delegate, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said only that he endorsed ElBaradei's comments.
But three diplomats familiar with the discussions said Monday's session was inconclusive.
Iran, they said, would not be drawn on whether it was ready to ship out its enriched material.
Instead it asked questions about the plan put forward by its interlocutors - the US Russia and France.
It also criticized France for withholding enriched uranium from that nation's Eurodif nuclear plant, in which Teheran holds a 10-percent share, said the diplomats, who spoke to The Associated Press about the confidential meeting on condition of anonymity.
Areva, the state-run French nuclear company, has described Iran as a "sleeping partner" in Eurodif, which Teheran bought into more than three decades ago. Iran is under three sets of UN Security Council sanctions for defying council demands that it freeze enrichment - sanctions that include embargoes on all shipments of sensitive nuclear materials or technologies.
One of the diplomats described the talks as being "not as good as ElBaradei said but good enough to have them continue." Another cautioned against qualifying the discussions, noting that they were in a very early stage.
Ahead of the meeting, Iran's state-run Press TV had cited unnamed officials in Teheran as saying the Islamic Republic was looking to keep its low-enriched uranium and buy what it needed for the Teheran reactor abroad.
One source said Iran was looking to the US, Russia or France for such supplies - a stance that would likely doom the talks, with neither the US or France accepting anything short of an Iranian commitment to ship out its own material for further enrichment.
Teheran's refusal to give up most of its enriched stock could also abort chances of a second round of broader negotiations between Teheran and six world powers.
Iran's interlocutors were attempting Monday to implement what the West says Iran had agreed to during October 1 talks in Geneva - letting a foreign country, most likely Russia, turn most of its low-enriched uranium into higher grades to fuel its small research reactor in Teheran.
That would mean turning over more than 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium - as much as 75 percent of Iran's declared stockpile. Tentative plans would be for further enrichment in Russia and then conversion in France into metal fuel rods for the Teheran reactor.
Iran agreeing to ship most of its enriched uranium abroad would be significant in easing Western fears about Iran's nuclear program, as 1,000 kilograms is the commonly accepted threshold of the amount of low-enriched uranium needed for production of weapons-grade uranium enriched to levels above 90 percent.
Based on the present Iranian stockpile, the US has estimated that Teheran could produce a nuclear weapon between 2010 and 2015, an assessment that broadly jibes with those from Israel and other nations tracking Teheran's nuclear program.
If most of Iran's declared stock is taken out of the country, further enriched abroad and then turned into fuel for the Teheran reactor, any effort to make nuclear weapons would be delayed until Iran again has enriched enough material to turn into weapons-grade uranium.
But David Albright of the Washington-based IISS, which has closely tracked Iran for signs of any covert proliferation said that any such deal would buy only a limited amount of time, noting that Teheran could replace even 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium "in little over a year." Iran now has more than 4,000 centrifuges producing low-enriched uranium, and its capacities are increasing.
Teheran, if it agrees to ship out the enriched uranium, could also resist pressure to hand over most of its stock in one batch, and instead seek to send small amounts at a time. Iran has enough fuel for the Teheran reactor to last until mid-2011.
The six powers at the Geneva talks - the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany - have tentatively scheduled a follow-up meeting by the end of this month aimed at starting negotiations that will ultimately place strict controls on Iran's enrichment activities.
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