Fereydoun Abbasi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, center,… (AFP/Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — Iran's top nuclear official offered hope that Tehran may be flexible in upcoming international talks about its disputed nuclear program, indicating that the regime may be willing to halt production of the enriched uranium that most worries the West.
Fereydoun Abbasi, head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, said in an Iranian TV interview broadcast Monday that Iran wants only enough 20%-enriched uranium for its medical needs.
The United States and its European allies are worried that Iran could refine the 20%-enriched uranium it is producing into weapons-grade fuel for a nuclear bomb in a matter of months.
Talks are scheduled to begin Friday in Istanbul, Turkey, between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia — plus Germany.
The negotiations will focus on demands by Washington and its allies that Iran stop producing 20%-enriched uranium, send its existing stockpile abroad, and provide a full accounting of its partially covert nuclear development program, as required under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
As the high-stakes talks have neared, Iranian officials have given little indication that they might compromise on a program they insist is for peaceful purposes. Until Sunday it was not even clear if Iran would attend the session, which resumes a dialogue that broke off in January 2011.
Some nongovernmental experts said Abbasi's comments may signal an opening for compromise, although they acknowledged that Iran's intentions and timing remain unclear.
Ray Takeyh, a former Obama administration advisor on Iran, said the Iranians "seem here to be floating a proposal." He said Abbasi "is a serious guy," and that his statement probably was discussed and approved by top Iranian officials, including Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say.
Takeyh, now with the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations, noted that Abbasi didn't indicate what Iran might demand as a reward for eventually abandoning production of 20%-enriched uranium.
Mehrzad Boroujerdi, a Middle East specialist at Syracuse University, said that "Iran seems to be trying to signal that it wants at least to try to work out the problems."
But he said he was skeptical that Iran would compromise with the West since "they are so far apart from each other at this point."
One U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive negotiations, said Iranian officials had given conflicting signals for days, and that Iran is known for making gestures that mean little when negotiations actually begin.
Iran's foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, said Iran would not heed preconditions set by other countries before the talks begin.
"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 the five-plus-one group," Salehi said, speaking of the five permanent Security Council members and Germany, according to the Associated Press. "But imposing any conditions before the talks would be meaningless."