LAUSANNE, Switzerland - Iran is backing off an earlier apparent agreement to allow enriched uranium to be shipped out of the country to Russia as a way to assure the material can't be used as nuclear-bomb fuel.
Speaking on the sidelines of ongoing negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi told Iranian reporters that the country has "no plans to ship the uranium stockpile abroad at all," Iran's Mehr news agency reported.
He insisted that Iran had never had plans to do so, but that there were other ways to assure that the material is not diverted for weapons use, even if it remains in Iran.
Since late last year, it has been widely expected that such transfers would be one component in the agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program.
Araqchi's statement comes at a moment when the bargaining has become difficult on several issues. Officials are saying that while they have reached agreement on many issues, it remains unclear whether a deal can be reached.
However, Western diplomats and analysts noted Monday that there are other ways to assure Iranian compliance with any international agreements to restrict Iran's nuclear program. The enriched uranium can be converted into forms that make it difficult to use the material for weapons, as is being done as part of the pending interim agreement that is now in effect.
The material can also simply be kept under close monitoring, said one Western official, who declined to be identified, citing the sensitivity of the subject. Iran appears to be accepting U.S. proposals for highly intrusive monitoring and inspections of its nuclear sites, a U.S. official said Sunday.
A senior State Department official said Monday that how Iran's stockpile would be dealt with had "not yet been decided in the negotiating room, even tentatively."
The handling of the stockpile hasn't been under discussion in the latest round of talks, the State Department official said.
U.S. officials noted that Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran's nuclear organization, said in several media interviews last winter that "no fuel is supposed to leave Iran."
Even so, some observers predicted that the disclosure about the shipments would be a disruption, coming only two days before six world powers and Iran are expected to wrap up a preliminary agreement to curb the Iranian nuclear program.
Tuesday is the deadline for the two sides to finalize a framework agreement. That deal, if it can be reached, is supposed to be the basis for a final accord by the end of June detailing steps for Iran to scale back its uranium enrichment and other technology that could be used to make nuclear arms.
In return, Tehran would be rewarded with the easing of economic sanctions.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have done most of the top-level negotiating in recent months. But the talks formally remain between Iran and six nations - the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany - and the foreign ministers of six of those seven countries are now in the Swiss city of Lausanne.