Iran says uranium enrichment remains its right
TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran will never give up its right to enrich uranium, a senior official said on Friday, but it could suspend higher-level work for several years if a long-delayed fuel swap can be agreed with foreign powers.
Iran's position on the process may be central to reviving stalled talks with global powers which have imposed tighter sanctions on the Islamic Republic, fearing that it is trying to make an atomic bomb.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Wednesday that Iran would stop enriching uranium to 20 percent purity if the fuel swap is agreed.
Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, said it was out of the question for Iran to promise never to enrich uranium, but added that the higher-grade work could be put on hold.
Iran has thousands of centrifuges enriching uranium to the 3.5 percent level it says it needs for generating power. It began refining small amounts to the 20 percent level in February, alarming Western powers because this takes the material closer to the grade needed for a nuclear weapon.
"Twenty-percent enrichment is our right and we would never cede this right. But despite that right, since its need is not felt (in the event of a fuel swap), there is no necessity for doing that," Salehi told the semi-official Mehr news agency.
The U.N. Security Council has demanded that Iran cease all uranium enrichment.
Iran has held no substantive talks with world powers since it struck a fuel swap deal with Russia, France and the United States in October. That unraveled when Tehran sought further conditions.
Under the deal Iran would have sent 1.2 tons of low-enriched uranium (LEU) -- about 70 percent of its stockpile at the time -- abroad in exchange for specially processed fuel rods needed to keep a Tehran medical research reactor running.
The plan was revived in talks with Brazil and Turkey in May, but by then Iran's LEU reserve had doubled. This devalued the swap in Western eyes as it would no longer remove enough LEU to prevent its use for an atom bomb, if refined to high purity.
Analysts say Iran cannot turn the higher enriched uranium into fuel for the reactor because it lacks the capability to make the special fuel assemblies required. Only a few countries in the world -- such as France and Argentina -- have this technology ready to hand.
Salehi said: "We would prefer to secure the fuel for the Tehran reactor from abroad since its production domestically is not economical."
Israel, which won't confirm or deny whether it has atomic weapons, sees a potentially nuclear armed Iran as a threat to its existence and has not ruled out a pre-emptive strike. Washington has also said military action is not ruled out.
(Reporting by Hashem Kalantari; writing by Robin Pomeroy; editing by David Stamp)
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