Iran agreed Monday to ship most of its low-enriched uranium to Turkey in a surprise nuclear fuel swap deal that could ease the international standoff over the country's disputed atomic program and deflate a U.S.-led push for tougher sanctions.
The deal, which was reached in talks with Brazil and Turkey, was similar to a U.N.-drafted plan that Washington and its allies have been pressing Tehran for the past six months to accept in order to deprive Iran -- at least temporarily -- of enough stocks of enriched uranium to produce a nuclear weapon.
Iran, which claims its nuclear program is peaceful, dropped several key demands that had previously blocked agreement. In return for agreeing to ship most of its uranium stockpile abroad, it would receive fuel rods of medium-enriched uranium to use in a Tehran medical research reactor that produces isotopes for cancer treatment. It was not immediately clear what would happen to the stockpile once the fuel rods were received.
The United States had no immediate comment, but Germany and Britain greeted the news with caution.
Britain's government said it was awaiting confirmation of the reports on Iran's deal with Turkey and insisted it remains committed to new sanctions against Tehran.
"Our position on Iran is unchanged at the present time," Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman Steve Field told reporters. "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."
German government spokesman Christoph Steegmans noted that the question remains whether Iran suspends enrichment of nuclear material at home, raising a possible sticking point since the agreement reaffirmed Tehran's right to enrichment activities for peaceful purposes.
Iran's Foreign Ministers spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said Iran will continue to enrich uranium to higher level despite the deal reached Monday.
"Of course, enrichment of uranium to 20 percent will continue inside Iran," the official news agency IRNA quoted him as saying.
For months, Iran has haggled over the terms, making counterproposals that were repeatedly rejected by the U.S. and its allies. With the deal announced Monday, Tehran seems to have agreed to almost all of the original terms. However, making the deal with Turkey and Brazil may have been more palatable, allowing Iran to argue that it did not bend to American pressure.
"It was agreed during the trilateral meeting of Iranian, Turkish and Brazilian leaders that Turkey will be the venue for swapping" Iran's stocks of enriched uranium for fuel rods, Mehmanparast said on state TV.
Washington has cited the Iranians' intransigence against the original deal as proof of the need for new U.N. sanctions.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the new deal meant Iran was willing to "open a constructive road."
"There is no ground left for more sanctions or pressure," he told reporters in Iran, according to Turkey's private NTV television.
Monday's deal was announced after talks between Brazil's president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran.
The main difference from the U.N.-drafted version is that if Iran does not receive the fuel rods within a year, Turkey will be required to "quickly and unconditionally" return the uranium to Iran. Iran feared that under the initial U.N. deal, if a swap fell through, its uranium stock could be seized permanently.
The U.N. proposal also said Russia and France would process the Iranian uranium to higher levels, then send it back as fuel rods.
The process would begin one month after a final agreement is signed between Iran and its main negotiating partners, including the United States and the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Iran dropped an earlier demand for the fuel exchange to happen in stages and is now willing to ship abroad its nuclear material in a single batch. It also dropped an insistence that the exchange happen inside Iran as well as a request to receive the fuel rods right away.
While kept under international supervision in Turkey, the uranium would still be considered Iranian property until Iran receives the fuel rods, said Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.
Iranian Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi, who is also the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, called Monday's deal historic.
The United Nations has already imposed three rounds of financial sanctions on Iran for its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment. The process is key to concerns over its program, because it can produce either low-enriched uranium needed to fuel a nuclear reactor or the highly enriched uranium needed to build a warhead.
The fuel swap deal on the table since October was touted as a way to reduce tensions and ensure Iran cannot build a bomb in the short term. The material returned to Iran in the form of fuel rods cannot be processed beyond its lower, safer levels. Iran needs the fuel rods to power an aging medical research reactor in Tehran that produces isotopes for cancer treatment.
Under the agreement announced Monday, Iran will ship most of its enriched uranium -- about 2,600 pounds, or 1,200 kilograms -- to Turkey to be kept under U.N. and Iranian supervision. In return, it will get fuel rods containing uranium enriched to higher levels needed for the research reactor, Mehmanparast said.
Iran first reached out to Turkey and Brazil in its efforts to avoid tougher U.N. sanctions for its refusal to stop enriching uranium altogether. Both countries are non-permanent members of the Security Council.
Monday's deal was signed by the foreign ministers of the three countries.
Mehmanparast said a letter will be sent to the IAEA within a week to pave the way for a final agreement.
"Should they be ready, an agreement will be signed between us and the group," he said, referring to the U.S., France, Russia and the IAEA.
A month later, the uranium -- currently enriched to a level of 3.5 percent -- would be sent to Turkey, where it would be stored under IAEA and Iranian supervision, Mehmanparast said. The fuel rods would contain material processed to just under 20 percent.
Enrichment of 90 percent is needed to produce material for nuclear warheads.
Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser contributed to this report from Ankara, Turkey.
The agreement --