Iran has warned that it would be forced to enrich uranium on its own to a level required for use in the treatment of cancer patients if a breakthrough in its talks with the global powers is not urgently achieved.

In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Ali-Asghar Soltanieh stressed that in case the Iranian proposal to obtain enriched uranium fuel from abroad was rejected, Iran would be “forced to” enrich uranium to a 20 per cent level from its own stockpile of Low Enriched Uranium (LEU), which was purified to a below 5 per cent level. Mr. Soltanieh’s assertion came ahead of the launch of a major air exercise on Sunday by Iran, aimed at protecting the country’s nuclear sites from attacks.

Iran has hardened its stance after U.S. President Barack Obama issued a veiled warning to Tehran that it could be subjected to fresh sanctions. He said during the South Korea leg of his recent Asia visit that world powers could compile a package of measures against Iran “within weeks”.

Citing the urgency to receive fuel, Mr. Soltanieh said: “We need the fuel because more than 200 hospitals depend on it.”

Iran is seeking modifications to an IAEA draft plan, which envisages that Iran should send the bulk of its LEU stocks to Russia for further enrichment. Russia, in turn, would send the material to France for fabrication into metal fuel rods. These would then be used in a Tehran reactor engaged in producing medical isotopes.

In its counter-proposal, Iran has suggested that its domestically produced LEU be stored in a room sealed by the IAEA inside the country until the higher-enriched uranium arrived, Iran’s state run Press TV reported.

Under this proposal, the exchange would be completed in two stages — 400 kg of Iran’s LEU would be exchanged with 58 kg of 20 per cent-enriched uranium in each stage, it added.

Mr. Soltanieh said the world powers had had not met with “enough guarantees”, Iran’s concerns over fuel supply. “The way we have been treated over the past 30 years, we have every reason [not to trust the Western powers],” he observed. On Thursday Mr. Soltanieh said at a press conference in Vienna that Iran was ready for a “final round of talks” over fuel supplies to the Tehran reactor. He emphasised the necessity of IAEA’s involvement both in supervising and implementing a fool-proof arrangement of stable supplies.

The nuclear debate over Iran is taking place in the backdrop of possible air strikes by Israel against Iran’s atomic infrastructure.

But seeking to deter Israel, Mojtaba Zolnour, representative of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to the elite Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, said that if attacked by Israel, Iran would retaliate by striking Tel Aviv. “If the enemy should want to test its bad luck in Iran, before the dust from its missiles settles in this country, Iran’s ballistic missiles would land in the heart of Tel Aviv,” IRNA quoted Mr. Zolnour, a cleric, as saying.

Mr. Zolnour’s remarks preceded the beginning of a five-day air exercise which was being held “with the intention of protecting the country’s nuclear facilities”, said Ahmad Miqani, Iran’s Air Chief.

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