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U.S. and allies open talks with Iran on nuclear program

The Vienna gathering will focus on a deal that would have Russia enriching uranium for Iran. But Tehran says, if talks fail, it will accelerate its enrichment capabilities.

October 20, 2009|Jeffrey Fleishman

CAIRO — Iran threatened to accelerate its uranium enrichment capabilities if talks with world powers that began Monday in Vienna don't yield a compromise on an international plan to provide materials for Tehran's nuclear program.

Negotiators from the United States and its European allies are seeking a deal that would allow Russia to enrich uranium up to 20% to fuel an Iranian medical research reactor to produce isotopes for treating cancer. The agreement would ease Western concern over Iran developing the ability to raise its own enrichment levels, which Washington says could move Tehran closer to building a nuclear weapon.

Iran has indicated it would allow another country to enrich a portion of its uranium, but it announced hours before the Vienna gathering that it would step up its enrichment capacity if the talks failed. Iranian officials say their nuclear program is for civilian power and medical research. They have expressed irritation over international pressure and have been both hard-edged and conciliatory in efforts to avoid new economic sanctions.

The talks opened with new acrimony as Tehran threatened to "retaliate" against the United States and Britain after Sunday's suicide bombing in southeastern Iran that killed six commanders in the Revolutionary Guard.

The Sunni Muslim militant group Jundallah claimed responsibility for the attack, which also killed 36 other people. Iran maintains that the organization has "direct ties" to U.S., British and Pakistani intelligence services. All three countries have denied the accusations.

"If the Vienna talks fail to satisfy Iran, a letter will be written to the International Atomic Energy Agency to announce that Iran will take the necessary action to supply nuclear fuel to the Tehran reactor," Ali Shirzadian, spokesman for Iran's nuclear agency, told reporters. "Iran can enrich uranium at 20%, and it will do so, if needed, to provide fuel for the reactor."

Uranium in nature has very low levels of the isotope uranium-235, which is needed to start a nuclear reaction. It can fuel nuclear power plants if the isotope is enriched to about a 3% level and can be used for medical treatments at higher levels. Ideally, it must be enriched to about 90% to provide weapons-grade uranium, but cruder weapons can be made with less enrichment.

"We're off to a good start," Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said of the talks. "We have had a constructive meeting. Most technical issues have been discussed."

Delegations from the United States, France, Russia and the IAEA met with Iranian officials and will resume talks today. The plan under negotiation is for Russia to import Iran's stockpile of 3.5%-enriched uranium. It would enrich it up to 20%, ship it to France to be turned into fuel rods, which would be sent to Iran for use in the medical reactor.

"We need between 150 and 300 kilograms of nuclear fuel, and it would not be economical to produce it in Iran," Shirzadian said. "Iran's offer to have its uranium enriched abroad is a test of honesty for the West."

But even as the nuclear negotiations began, Iran signaled that it would probably oppose France's involvement in the enrichment scenario. Iran's state-owned Press TV reported that "sources close to the meeting [said] that Iran might remove France from the list of bidders as Paris has failed to deliver its nuclear materials in the past."

The talks this week "are supposed to seal the deal," a senior Western diplomat, who requested anonymity due to political sensitivities, told Reuters news agency. "But since we have had no negotiations thus far with the Iranians, the next couple of days could reopen a lot of what we hoped was already agreed in principle."

The negotiations follow a series of economic threats and diplomatic overtures in recent weeks regarding Iran's nuclear intentions. Western criticism intensified in September with news that a previously undisclosed uranium-enrichment plant was being built near the city of Qom. The plant, which is expected to house 3,000 centrifuges for enriching uranium, was characterized by the U.S. as an attempt by Iran to hide its program from international inspectors.

The furor led to Iran agreeing to allow inspectors into the plant later this month. That decision and the talks on uranium enrichment may signal that Iran, which is already under three sets of sanctions imposed by the United Nations and is dealing with economic problems and political unrest at home, may be willing to compromise on its nuclear program.

Tehran, however, does not want to appear to be capitulating. Its nuclear program has long been a source of national pride, and any wavering could damage the credibility of hard-liners led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Shirzadian, the nuclear agency spokesman, discounted assertions that receiving enriched uranium from other countries would undercut Iran's aspirations.

"These are sheer lies," he told Press TV. "Iran's offer aims to reduce costs and interact with other countries, but it never means the suspension of enrichment work inside the country."

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jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Special correspondent Julia Damianova in Vienna contributed to this report.

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