Compromise may be found with Iran over uranium

Ahmadinejad visits Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility south of Tehran. Picture: AP
Ahmadinejad visits Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility south of Tehran. Picture: AP
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Iran has no interest in reviving a failed nuclear fuel swap deal with Western powers, but might scale back production of higher-grade enriched uranium once it has the material it needs, the head of the country’s atomic energy organisation has said, a sign of compromise in the stand-off.

American officials say that getting Iran to suspend high-level uranium enrichment and close an underground nuclear facility near the holy city of Qom are priorities for talks between Iran and world powers that are due to resume on Saturday.

Iranian media also quoted foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi yesterday as saying that Tehran would not agree to world powers imposing pre-conditions before the nuclear talks, which will resume in Istanbul after collapsing more than a year ago.

He said: “Setting conditions before the meeting means drawing conclusions, which is completely meaningless and none of the parties will accept conditions set before the talks.”

The United States and its allies suspect Iran’s nuclear programme is hiding attempts to develop an atomic weapons capability and Washington has not ruled out military action against Tehran if diplomacy fails.

Iran says the programme is solely for power generation and medical needs, adding that it needs to enrich uranium to 20 per cent to produce medical isotopes from a Tehran research reactor for the treatment of thousands of patients.

Iranian media also quoted nuclear chief Fereydoon Abbasi-Davani as dismissing a revival of the swap deal to supply Iran with fuel enriched abroad for peaceful purposes at the Tehran research reactor, an agreement which collapsed in 2009.

“The Islamic Republic won’t turn back and has no interest in receiving 20 per cent fuel from other countries because it has made an investment,” Mr Abbasi-Davani said.

However, he raised the possibility of later converting fuel back to 3.5 per cent purity, the level required for reactors producing nuclear power.

Trying to find a way to halt Iran’s higher-grade uranium enrichment capability has become the focus for Washington and its allies and the suggestion leaves questions over what would happen to Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 per cent.

Iranian scientists began enriching uranium to 20 per cent purity in early 2010 and now say they can produce the fuel plates required to feed the Tehran research reactor. Iran has repeatedly said it had no other choice after the 2009 swap deal failed.

Analysts say the negotiations depend on the extent of Iran’s ability to make compatible fuel plates. Western experts have doubts about Tehran’s announcements and suggest a revised fuel swap may still figure as a way to break to the deadlock.

It is unclear what Iran would expect in return, but its demands would surely revolve around the lifting of sanctions against its financial and energy industries, which have caused increasing hardship in the country.

Ahead of Istanbul, there are signs Tehran is confident it may have beaten back the toughest Western demands – for a complete halt to uranium enrichment – and that some bargaining room has now been opened for new proposals.

Mr Abbasi’s remarks follow comments last week from Iranian MP Gholam Reza Mesbahi Moghadam, who claimed Tehran has the know-how and the capability to produce a nuclear weapon but would never do so.

Mr Moghadam also said that Iran has the means to produce 90-plus per cent enrichment, though he did not elaborate.

l The US Navy has deployed a second aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf region amid the rising tensions with Iran.

The deployment of the nuclear-powered USS Enterprise along with the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group marks one of the few times the American navy has had two aircraft carriers operating in waters near the Persian Gulf.