TEHRAN, Iran — Iran agreed Monday to ship much of its low-enriched uranium abroad and then rolled out a new obstacle to nuclear compromise by insisting it would press ahead with higher enrichment – bringing it closer to being able to make atomic warheads.
The deal forged with Turkey and Brazil appeared to be another attempt to stave off U.N. sanctions – a doubtful endeavor judging by reactions from the United States and other Western powers.
The White House showed deep skepticism about the pact, warning it still allows Iran to keep enriching uranium toward the pursuit of a nuclear weapon.
"Given Iran's repeated failure to live up to its own commitments, and the need to address fundamental issues related to Iran's nuclear program, the United States and international community continue to have serious concerns," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.
Still, by involving Turkey and Brazil, Iran ramped up the pressure on Washington over additional U.N. sanctions.
The deal moves these two influential Security Council members closer to Tehran and presents the U.S. and its Western allies with a bloc of developing nations that back Iran's right to pursue a nuclear program.
In announcing the accord, Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim and his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu, said Tehran has the right to "a full nuclear fuel cycle, including enrichment activities for peaceful purposes" and condemned any new sanctions against Iran.
Both countries are important for Washington – Brazil is South America's largest nation and has a dominant role on the continent, while Turkey, a key NATO ally and a traditional regional U.S. mainstay, has moved to develop an increasingly independent voice.
While they have no Security Council veto, both are skeptical of the U.S.-led drive for a fourth set of Security Council sanctions to punish Tehran's refusal to stop its enrichment activities.
And the Iranian maneuver could weaken growing resolve by Russia and China – which do have veto power – to support new sanctions.
Moscow and Beijing were responsible for watering down the language of previous anti-Iran sanctions but appeared to swing behind the U.S., Britain and France recently.
The deal announced Monday calls for Iran to ship 1,200 kilograms (2,640 pounds) of low-enriched uranium to Turkey, where it would be stored. In exchange, Iran would receive, within one year, higher-enriched fuel rods to be used in a U.S.-built medical research reactor.
The pact mirrors a swap proposed last October in which Iran would have shipped the same amount of low-enriched uranium to Russia in exchange for higher-enriched material for its research reactor. That deal fell apart over Tehran's insistence that the swap take place on Iranian soil.
On its face, the latest plan seems a significant concession, with Iran agreeing to ship its material to be stored in Turkey and wait up to a year for higher-enriched uranium from France and Russia.
However, Iran is believed to have much more nuclear material stockpiled now.
In October, swapping 1,200 kilograms (2,640 pounds) would have left Iran with less than the 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds) of material needed to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb.
Since then, Iran has continued to churn out low-enriched material and started enriching uranium to an even higher level – from 3.5 percent to near 20 percent. While Tehran insists it has no nuclear arms ambitions, it could produce weapons grade uranium much more quickly from the 20 percent level.
In March, the International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran's stockpile stood at around 2,100 kilograms (4,600 pounds). It has likely grown to an estimated 2,300 kilograms – about 5,000 pounds, or more than twice the amount needed to produce enough material for a bomb, according to David Albright of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, which has tracked Iran for signs of covert proliferation.
From the West's point of view, that destroys much of the incentive for an agreement – and Iran's decision to continue its program to enrich to near 20 percent poses an even greater hurdle.
Western nations insisted Monday they remained on the sanctions track.
"Our position on Iran is unchanged," said Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman, Steve Field. "Iran has an obligation to reassure the international community, and until it does so, we will continue to work with our international partners on a sanctions resolution in the United Nations Security Council."
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero agreed, saying the world was awaiting "credible answers from Iran" on its nuclear agenda.
For his part, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev cautiously welcomed the agreement but said it may fail to fully satisfy the international community. He alluded to Iran's intention to continue its higher-enrichment activities as a cause for concern.
Even as the agreement was announced, Iran said it would continue to enrich uranium to higher levels. "Of course, enrichment of uranium to 20 percent will continue inside Iran," Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told the official news agency IRNA.
That stance is bound to feed international suspicions about a nuclear program Tehran has long insisted is peaceful since the original rationale for enriching to 20 percent was that foreign countries were refusing to provide the fuel rods needed for Iran's research reactor.
"There is no apparent civilian use for this material," the British Foreign Office said, adding that the decision to continue higher enrichment "underlines Iran's disregard for efforts to engage it in serious negotiation."
Monday's deal was announced after talks between Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran.
If Iran does not receive the fuel rods within a year, Turkey will be required to "quickly and unconditionally" return the uranium to Iran, according to a joint declaration by the three nations. Iran feared that under the initial U.N. deal, if a swap fell through, its uranium stock could be seized permanently.
Erdogan said that once Iran received the fuel rods, Turkey will hand the Iranian low-enriched uranium to whatever country provided the fuel. Still the agreement did not specify that – an omission that could open the path to a possible claim by Tehran even if it receives fuel rods from abroad.
Jahn reported from Vienna. Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.
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