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US casts doubt on Iran nuke deal

THE US and Germany said yesterday they saw no sign Tehran would make concessions on its nuclear programme despite comments from Iran's foreign minister over prospects for a deal.

US defence secretary Robert Gates said he did not believe agreement was near on a proposal to exchange Iran's low-enriched uranium for higher-grade fuel for use in a Tehran reactor making medical isotopes, and suggested it was time for more sanctions against Iran.

An accord on exchanging fuel could mark a major breakthrough in the long-running dispute over Iran's nuclear programme, which the West fears could be used to produce an atomic bomb.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said on Friday he saw good prospects for agreement, but restated two conditions that could be stumbling blocks -- that any fuel exchange must be simultaneous and that Iran would determine quantities involved.

"I don't have the sense that we're close to an agreement," Mr Gates told reporters in Ankara, where he met Turkish leaders.

The five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany met on Friday to discuss efforts to persuade Iran to halt its nuclear enrichment programme, which Tehran says is for peaceful purposes, but China made clear it was too soon to discuss further sanctions.

A Chinese diplomat pointed to comments from Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who -- in contrast to Mottaki -- said last week that Iran would be ready to send low-enriched uranium abroad before getting reactor fuel back.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Iran had so far failed to dispel western scepticism that it was prepared to make meaningful concessions over its nuclear programme.

"Our hand is still reaching out towards them. But so far it's reaching out into nothingness," he said.

Mr Gates said Iran's response had been disappointing and suggested it was time to move ahead with more sanctions on Iran, which has already had three sets of UN sanctions for its failure to halt uranium enrichment.

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Western powers see the potential fuel swap as a means to ensure Tehran does not further enrich its uranium for potential use in a nuclear weapon.

Iran denies it wants to make atomic bombs.

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