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IRAN: A question of uranium enrichment

October 11, 2009 |  7:34 am

Ahmadinejad nuclear Is Iran threatening, playing nice or bargaining? The upcoming talks between Tehran and world powers in Vienna will focus on who will provide enriched uranium to Iran’s nuclear program. The option supported by the U.S. and its European allies is for Russia to take Iran’s low-enriched uranium, enrich it to 20% and return it to Iran's research reactor for use in medical treatments.

Such a scenario would be a major shift for Iran, which has refused in the past to allow other nations to enrich its uranium. It also would build confidence in the West that Tehran, after years of defiance, is open to compromise.

But Iran said on Sunday that if a deal is not reached it will enrich its uranium stockpile from 3.5% to 20%. This is a prospect the United Nations and the West, which have pressured Iran in recent weeks following the disclosure of a second uranium-enrichment site, want to avoid. 

Washington claims Iran is intent on building a nuclear weapon. The Iranians say their program is for medical and civilian use. The West opposes Iran increasing its enrichment capacity; 90% uranium enrichment is preferred for a nuclear weapon but a weapon can be built using lower enrichment.

Ali Shirzadian, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, told Iran's student news agency on Saturday: "Iran fully owns the enrichment technology, and therefore it will sit at the negotiating table with power." 

He was more conciliatory in an interview with The Times on Sunday: 

“We’re looking at three options. We hand over 3.5% enriched and receive in return 20% enriched, or we buy 20% enriched on the market, or we will be allowed to enrich ourselves. I stress that no matter what option we take it will be monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency. We are not threatening. Any of these options will work for both sides.”

That remains to be seen as negotiators prepare for the Oct. 19 talks in Vienna.

-- Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo

Photo: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tours a nuclear facility. Credit: Reuters