Iran has signalled ahead of international talks on Monday that it will not meet Western demands for a deal that would move most of its enriched uranium out of the country and delay its gaining the ability to make a nuclear bomb.
Tehran says it needs enriched uranium for nuclear fuel, but the West fears it could be used for weapons. The U.S. says Iran is now one to six years away from being able to make such arms, should it choose to.
Iran’s state-run Press TV cited unnamed officials in Tehran as saying the Islamic Republic was looking to hold on to its low-enriched uranium and buying what it needed for the Tehran reactor abroad. One of the sources said Iran was looking to the U.S., Russia or France for such supplies.
Such a stance would likely doom the talks, with neither the U.S. nor France accepting such terms.
Tehran’s refusal to give up most of its enriched stock could also abort chances of a second round of broader negotiations between Tehran and six world powers on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.
In Iran, leaders have accused Britain and the United States — as well as Pakistan — with aiding the Sunni insurgent group Jundallah, or Soldiers of God, which claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing on Sunday that killed five top Revolutionary Guard commanders and at least 37 others.
The claims, however, are not expected to complicate the nuclear talks in Vienna.
Iran routinely blames Western powers for having links to internal upheavals, including the unprecedented protests and clashes following the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June. The allegations are rarely mentioned by Iran’s nuclear negotiators and have not altered Iran positions such as the demand to enrich uranium.
Monday’s Vienna talks between Tehran and the U.S., Russia and France, focus on a technical issue with huge strategic ramifications — whether Iran is ready to farm out some of its uranium enrichment program to a foreign country.
Progress would strengthen confidence on the part of the U.S. and five other big powers trying to persuade Iran to dispel fears about its nuclear program that this time Tehran is serious about reducing tensions and ready to build on the Oct. 1 Geneva talks with six world powers.
Beyond that, it could give the international community more negotiating space by delaying Tehran’s ability to turn what is now a civilian uranium enrichment program into an assembly line producing fissile warhead material.
The talks on Monday will attempt to implement what Western officials say Iran agreed to during the Geneva talks; letting a foreign country — most likely Russia — turn most of its low-enriched uranium into higher grades to fuel its small research reactor in Tehran.
That would mean turning over more than 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium — more than 2,600 pounds and as much as 75 percent of Iran’s declared stockpile. Tentative plans are for further enrichment in Russia and then conversion in France into metal fuel rods for the Tehran reactor.
Iranian agreement to such terms would be significant because 1,000 kilograms is the commonly accepted threshold of the amount of low-enriched uranium needed for production of weapons-grade uranium enriched to levels above 90 percent.
Based on the present Iranian stockpile, the U.S. has estimated that Tehran could produce a nuclear weapon between 2010 and 2015, an assessment that broadly jibes with those from Israel and other nations tracking Tehran’s nuclear program.
If most of Iran’s declared stock is taken out of the country, further enriched abroad and then turned into fuel for the Tehran reactor, any effort to make nuclear weapons would be delayed until Iran again has enriched enough material to turn into weapons-grade uranium.
“It buys some time,” said David Albright of the Washington-based IISS, which has closely tracked Iran for signs of any covert proliferation. But Mr. Albright added that Iran could replace even 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium “in little over a year” at its present rate of enrichment.
And ahead of the talks it remained unclear whether Iran was even ready to discuss shipping out most of its enriched stock.
A senior Western diplomat in Vienna who is familiar with Monday’s talks told The Associated Press shortly before they were to begin that the Iranians had not communicated any refusal to discuss transferring their enriched uranium to the delegations involved in the negotiations.
Press TV reported a further potential glitch as the talks began. Again turning to an unnamed source, it cited the source as saying Iran would not negotiate with France at the Vienna talks because Tehran has not received any enriched uranium from France despite owning 10 percent of that nation’s Eurodif nuclear plant.
Areva, the state-run French nuclear company, has described Iran as a “sleeping partner” in Eurodif, which Tehran bought into more than three decades ago before the Islamic Revolution bought the clerical leadership to power.
Still, the French were attending the talks and the doors to the closed meeting remained shut more than an hour after they started with no suggestion that the French delegation was planning to leave.
Even if Tehran agrees to ship out its enriched uranium, it could still try to resist pressure to hand over most of its stock in one batch, insisting instead on sending small amounts out of the country. Iran still has enough fuel for the Tehran reactor to last until mid-2011.
With more than 4,000 centrifuges now producing low-enriched uranium, and its capacities increasing, that could leave Tehran in a position to rapidly make up for amounts exported to again amass enough material to make one nuclear weapon.
The six powers — the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — have tentatively scheduled follow-up talks to the Geneva meeting by the end of this month aimed at starting negotiations that will ultimately place strict controls on Iran’s enrichment activities.