Iran Insists on Uranium Enrichment Ahead of Talks

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Published Sunday, January 11, 2015

Iran's atomic agency chief insisted Sunday on Tehran's demands for increased uranium enrichment, days before the resumption of thorny talks with world powers in Geneva.

Ali Akbar Salehi, a former foreign minister and ex-nuclear negotiator for the Islamic Republic, said that within eight years the country would need 12 times more enriched uranium than at present.

Iran's level of uranium enrichment -- the process that produces atomic fuel -- has been a key stumbling block in reaching a deal with the P5+1 powers (Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States plus Germany) on Tehran's contentious nuclear program.

"We currently produce 2.5 tons but will need 30 tons eventually," Salehi, head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, was quoted as saying by official news agency IRNA.

"They refuse... and ask that we reduce the number of centrifuges (the machines that enrich uranium)," Salehi said.

"We must have that right in eight years... we are ready to do this in stages. They can set the first step but we want to set the last step."

With a comprehensive nuclear deal at stake by a June 30 deadline, the negotiations have stalled on key issues.

Following a preliminary agreement in November 2013, two deadlines for a final deal have been missed with talks failing to pin down hard details on what an approved Iranian nuclear program would look like.

Under the interim deal, Iran's stock of fissile material has been diluted from 20 percent enriched uranium to five percent in exchange for limited sanctions relief.

Salehi also reiterated Iran's demand for an eventual enrichment capacity of 190,000 SWU (separative work units), which was first set out by the country's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last July.

In Geneva, US Secretary of State John Kerry will meet Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif on Wednesday, with lower-level P5+1 meetings on January 18.

Diplomats on both sides say that despite progress, the two sides remain far apart on crucial points: the number and type of uranium-enriching centrifuges Iran should be allowed to keep spinning, the process for relieving sanctions and the duration of the final deal.

Tehran wants to massively ramp up the number of enrichment centrifuges in order, it says, to make fuel for a fleet of power reactors that is yet to be built.

The West seeks them dramatically reduced, a move which, together with more stringent UN inspections and an export of Iran's uranium stocks, would make any attempt to make the bomb all but impossible.

Moreover, Iran wants a quick and total lifting of UN and Western sanctions that have strangled its economy, including its vital oil trade, but the powers want to stagger any relief over a long period to ensure Tehran complies with any deal.

In the latest round of nuclear negotiations, Iran also asked for a time frame of five years to relieve sanctions, but world powers have suggested at least double that.

Besides the unilateral EU and US sanctions, which paralyzed Iran’s economy, four additional UN sanctions have been imposed on Iran.

The sanctions have severely curbed Iran's oil trade as well as the import and export of natural gas, and have also affected the country’s banking sector.

Salehi also pointed to a third difficulty -- the time period the West considers necessary for confidence-building measures to ensure Iran's nuclear program is peaceful.

"We want this period to be less than 10 years," he said, noting that the P5+1 powers want it to last "between 10 and 20 years".

In a sign that difficulties lie ahead, Khamenei last week used a public speech to voice distrust of the United States in the talks, citing its "arrogance" over the steps to be taken to lift sanctions.

Khamenei, as Iran's top authority, will have the last word on any final agreement.

The West suspects Tehran may be trying to develop a nuclear weapon capability.

Iran denies it is seeking a bomb and says its nuclear program is solely aimed at producing atomic energy to reduce the country's reliance on fossil fuels, requiring a massive increase in its ability to enrich uranium.

According to Tehran, Israel's presumed atomic arsenal – the only one in the region – is the main threat to peace.

Israel has threatened to use military force against Iranian atomic sites if diplomacy fails to ensure Iran is deprived of the means of developing nuclear weapons.

(AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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