Iran’s nuclear chief signaled Tehran’s envoys may bring a compromise offer to the talks this week with world powers: promising to eventually stop producing its most highly enriched uranium, while not totally abandoning its ability to make nuclear fuel.
The proposal outlined late Sunday seeks to directly address one of the potential main issues in the talks scheduled to begin Friday between Iran and the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany.
The U.S. and others have raised serious concerns about Iran’s production and stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent, which could be turned into weapons-grade strength in a matter of months.
But the proposal described by Iran’s nuclear chief, Fereidoun Abbasi, may not go far enough to satisfy the West because it would leave the higher enriched uranium still in Tehran’s hands rather than transferred outside the country.
Abbasi said Tehran could stop its production of 20 percent enriched uranium needed for a research reactor, and continue enriching uranium to lower levels for power generation.
This could take place once Iran has stockpiled enough of the 20 percent enriched uranium, Abbasi told state TV. The 20 percent enriched material can be used for medical research and treatments.
The enrichment issue lies at the core of the dispute between Iran and the West, which fears Tehran is seeking an atomic weapon — a charge the country denies, insisting its uranium program is for peaceful purposes only.
Uranium has to be enriched to more than 90 percent to be used for a nuclear weapon, but with Iran enriching uranium to 20 percent levels, there are concerns it has come a step closer to nuclear weapons capability.
Abbasi said production of uranium enriched up to 20 percent is not part of the nation’s long-term program — beyond amounts needed for its research reactor in Tehran — and insisted that Iran “doesn’t need” to enrich beyond the 20 percent levels.
“The job is being carried out based on need,” he said. “When the need is met, we will decrease production and it is even possible to completely reverse to only 3.5 percent” enrichment levels.
It was not immediately clear whether Abbasi’s comments reflect what will be Tehran’s official stance when the negotiations begin in Istanbul more than 14 months after the last round collapsed.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi was quoted on the Iranian parliament’s website on Monday as saying he hopes for some progress in the upcoming talks but warned Iran would not accept any preconditions.
“We will honestly try to have the two sides conclude with a win-win situation in which Iran achieves its rights while removing concerns of five-plus-one group,” he said. “But imposing any conditions before the talks would be meaningless.”
Iran insists it has full rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty to enrich uranium to create nuclear fuel and says it only seeks enrichment levels to power reactors, but the U.S. and others worry that the same process can be used to make weapons-grade material.
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.
Abbasi’s remarks follow a show of bravado last week from Iranian lawmaker Gholam Reza Mesbahi Moghadam, who claimed Tehran has the know-how and the capability to produce a nuclear weapon but would never do so.
Moghadam also said that Iran has the means to produce 90-plus percent enrichment, though he did not elaborate.
After a protracted flap over the venue for the talks, Iranian state TV reported Sunday that both sides had agreed on Istanbul. It said a second round would be held in Baghdad but that its timing would be decided during the meeting in Turkey.
The venue still has to be formally confirmed by EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton. But speaking from a European Union capital, a diplomat familiar with the preparations for the talks confirmed to The Associated Press on Monday that Istanbul had been chosen for the first round.
The diplomat demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose the information ahead of the formal announcement.