By Louis Charbonneau
VIENNA - Iran has told France, Britain and Germany it wants more than promises of future benefits if it suspends its controversial uranium enrichment programme, but the Europeans have refused, Western diplomats said on Thursday.
The European Union's "big three" states reached a tentative deal with Iran in Paris last weekend under which Iran would halt an enrichment programme, which could be used to make nuclear weapons, in exchange for political and economic incentives.
However, the Iranians are pushing for something tangible up front, not just promises of future "carrots", diplomats familiar with the negotiations told Reuters.
"Iran wants something up front if it's going to suspend enrichment, not just promises. But the Europeans have refused," a diplomat said.
The Europeans have promised Iran a light-water nuclear reactor, which would be more difficult to use for weapons activity than heavy-water reactors. They have also agreed to open trade talks with the EU and thaw political relations.
The EU-Iran arrangement is similar to a deal the United States worked out with North Korea in the early 1990s, exchanging heavy-water for light-water technology while the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), supervised a freeze of its nuclear programme.
But diplomats said French and German companies told their governments they would not be interested in supplying Iran with a reactor in case it harmed business with the United States.
An Iranian source close to internal discussions on whether or not to accept the deal said, however, Tehran would probably agree to it.
"The talks are very difficult but there is a more than 50 percent chance that the high-ranking Iranian officials will agree to accept it," a source close to the talks told Reuters.
Oil-rich Iran denies wanting nuclear technology for anything besides power generation.
TIME RUNNING OUT
Another diplomat said time was running out for Iran to accept the deal, which would enable Iran to escape a referral to the U.N. Security Council when the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) meets on Nov. 25.
"Basically, the situation remains unchanged. We're waiting for them to make their minds up," a diplomat from one of the three European states told Reuters.
If Iran rejects the deal, it will most likely be referred to the Security Council this month, diplomats say.
Washington, which says Iran's nuclear energy programme is a front for developing the bomb, wants Iran reported to the Security Council for concealing its uranium enrichment programme from the IAEA for nearly two decades.
A Security Council referral could eventually lead to economic sanctions, though few members of the 15-nation council would support an embargo of Iranian oil now, given the high price of oil on global markets, diplomats say.
One of the sticking points in the talks with Iran concerns the preparation of uranium for the enrichment process. The Europeans want all uranium conversion activities halted, while Tehran wants to continue with some conversion work.