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Iranian Officials Send Mixed Signals as Nuclear Talks Near Resumption

The New York Times
9th April 2012


By ALAN COWELL

LONDON — A senior Iranian official hinted on Monday that Iran would consider limits on its home-grown stockpile of enriched uranium, offering what seemed a modest compromise to partly meet Western concerns ahead of the planned resumption this week of nuclear talks with a group of six global powers.

The senior official, Ferydoon Abbasi, the head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, was quoted by Iranian news agencies as saying that Iran was prepared to enrich uranium to a maximum 20 percent purity just to meet the needs for a medical research reactor.

Mr. Abbasi was further quoted as saying that other uranium enrichment activities would be restricted to much lower levels of purity needed to fuel power generation reactors.

But in what appeared to be another set of mixed signals from Iran ahead of the talks, another high-ranking figure, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, said Iran would not accept preconditions. Iranian news agencies quoted him as saying, “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 apparent difference in tone between the remarks of Mr. Abbasi and Mr. Salehi seemed to reflect continued debate among the Iranian elite over the handling of the planned negotiations. But it was not immediately clear whether the mixed signals represented a deliberate strategy.

The talks, taking place as Iran faces a tightening noose of economic sanctions that include a European oil embargo coming into force in July, are set to begin in Istanbul this week.

The reports followed days of confusing signals from Iran that at one stage looked like a derailing of the negotiations. Even on Monday, disputes seemed to persist over the date, with the Iranian news media speaking of talks on Friday and a European Union official saying they would take place on Saturday. Other reports had said the talks, which would resume those suspended in January 2011 after a deadlock, would span both days.

The talks bring together Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — the United States, Britain, China, France and Russia — along with Germany, the so-called P5-plus-1 countries.

American and European diplomats said one demand from the Obama administration and its allies would be a halt in the production of uranium fuel that is considered just a few steps from bomb grade, and the transfer of existing stockpiles of that fuel out of the country.

Western powers would also lay out opening demands for the immediate closing and ultimate dismantling of a recently completed nuclear facility deep under a mountain, known as Fordo, near the holy city of Qum, the diplomats said. Mr. Abbasi did not refer to that demand.

The official Islamic Republic News Agency quoted him as telling a television station that Tehran “does not require to enrich uranium higher than 20 percent” — possibly a reference to Western concerns that, by processing uranium to that level of purity, Iran has taken an important technological step toward enriching to levels of more than 90 percent needed for a nuclear weapon.

But, he said, Iran had “decided to improve its capabilities” in producing 20-percent-enriched uranium. He did not specify how.

So far Iran has produced only about 100 kilograms of 20-percent-enriched uranium — less than required to produce a single nuclear weapon — but it has announced plans to increase production sharply in coming months.

Iran maintains that uranium enriched to 20 percent purity is needed to replenish a small nuclear reactor in Tehran used to make medical isotopes. Iranian officials have said in recent months, however, that they plan to produce more of the fuel enriched to 20 percent purity than is needed for the reactor.

“They have now produced nearly enough 20 percent to fuel the Tehran research reactor for the next 20 years,” one diplomat in Europe who closely follows the agency’s work in Iran said in February.

Iran has insisted that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, while Western leaders say they suspect that Tehran is seeking the capability to build nuclear weapons.

The dispute over the location of the talks centered on Iranian concerns that Istanbul is not a neutral site. Tehran was said to regard Istanbul as compromised because of Turkey’s stance on the crisis in Syria, Iran’s closest regional ally, and Turkey’s support for a NATO shield to block Iranian missiles. Iran had suggested other locations, including Baghdad and Beijing.

But “after weeks of debates, Iran and the six world powers agreed to attend a first meeting in Istanbul,” the semiofficial Fars news agency reported on Sunday, and would hold a second round of talks in Baghdad if progress was made in the initial negotiations.

President Obama has advocated tough sanctions and negotiations as a strategy to pressure Iran, but has not ruled out any option. More hawkish figures in Washington and Israel have suggested that the only way to thwart what they consider Iran’s ambition to achieve nuclear weapons capability is through an attack on its suspected nuclear sites.

Continue reading at The New York Times

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