IAEA chief says Iran fuel swap talks could start soon

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Talks to revive a stalled plan for Iran to swap some nuclear material for fuel could start within months, the U.N. atomic watchdog chief said on Monday, and there had been some positive signals from the countries involved.

Iran backed out of a tentative plan brokered by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and world powers in October under which it would ship 1.2 tonnes of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) abroad in return for medical reactor fuel.

Tehran showed revived interest in the deal in May after talks with Turkey and Brazil.

IAEA chief Yukiya Amano told Reuters on the sidelines of a lecture in Singapore he had received a "positive reaction" from countries in the "Vienna Group," comprising Russia, France, the United States and the IAEA, to hold a dialogue on a potential fuel swap soon.

"I am working on that. I have a positive reaction from member states ... and why not," Amano said, when asked if he intended to push for the talks to start in September.

Tehran and Washington also sent positive signals last week about the possibility of wider talks on the Iranian nuclear programme.

The original plan had been seen by the West as a way of divesting Iran of potential nuclear bomb material but officials say it has now lost some of its value because Iran's LEU stockpile has more than doubled in the meantime.

Iran has given an assurance that it would stop enriching uranium to 20 percent purity if world powers agreed to the fuel swap, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, told reporters in Istanbul last month.

The offer could bode well for an expected resumption of talks in September between Iran and major powers on the Islamic Republic's atomic program, which Tehran says is for peaceful purposes and not for bombs.

But Amano told the public lecture in Singapore that the talks might not yield a firm result.

"What will be the outcome, there may be not, I don't know. But starting a dialogue is very important... If we can have a discussion on this issue, that will be positive progress," he said.

The U.S. State Department said last week Iran had often sent mixed signals, but that Washington was "fully prepared" to resume talks among the six major powers and Tehran about its nuclear programme.

(Reporting by Nopporn Wong-Anan; Editing by Sylvia Westall and Miral Fahmy)

Iran opposition leaders lash out at powerful hardline cleric

TEHRAN (AFP) — Iranian opposition leaders lashed out on Monday at powerful hardline cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati over his accusations they had been paid by the United States to topple the Islamic regime.

Jannati, the long-serving head of the Guardians Council -- the constitutional and electoral watchdog -- is a vocal backer of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose re-election the opposition said was massively rigged.

Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi slammed Jannati for "lying, especially when one is tasked with fostering people's votes and the constitution," in comments carried by his Kaleme.com website.

"What better reason for fraud in the election than this man's recent lie?" charged Mousavi, a former premier who has led an anti-government campaign since losing to Ahmadinejad last year.

Jannati charged in comments published last week that Washington had paid one billion dollars to "the leaders of the sedition" -- a term hardliners coined to describe opposition leaders -- and promising them another 50 billion dollars to overthrow the regime.

The allegation has also drawn angry reactions from the other opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi and former president Mohammad Khatami as Ahmadinejad's re-election, which has bitterly divided the political elite, still figures as a major unresolved issue for the opposition.

"We are witnessing that they resort to lying, insults and defamation to justify oppression and bad policies," Khatami said on the website of his Baran organisation.

"Instead of preventing the country's downfall, they claim billion of dollars have come from abroad to undermine the revolution," said the reformist former president.

Karroubi for his part branded Jannati as "an accomplice to those who stole people's votes," in a statement on his website last week.

Jannati was recently re-instated in his position by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, despite widespread criticism against the council over the handling of the poll, whose result triggered widespread protests and unrest shaking the pillars of the Islamic republic.

Iranian leaders have accused the United States and Britain of masterminding the protests in a bid to topple the regime.

US backs Brazil asylum offer for Iran woman facing stoning

Philip Crowley

Philip Crowley

WASHINGTON (AFP) — The United States urged Iran Monday to accept an asylum offer from Brazil for a Iranian woman sentenced to death by stoning for adultery.

"If Brazil is willing to accept... this woman, we would hope that Iran would consider that as a humanitarian gesture," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said.

"And the fact that Brazil has stepped up and indicated a willingness to resolve it, we hope Iran will listen."

The comments came after Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on Saturday offered asylum to Sakineh Mohammadi-Ashtiani, a 43-year-old Iranian mother of two.

She was sentenced to death by stoning after being convicted in 2006 of having an extramarital affair during the trial of her husband's alleged murderer.

Lula appealed to Iranian authorities and Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a close ally of Brazil.

Mohammadi-Ashtiani's sentence sparked an outcry in Western countries, and was temporarily suspended earlier this month by Iranian judiciary chief Sadeq Larijani.