Senior Iran lawmaker says 20 percent uranium enrichment continuing

DUBAI (Reuters) - Iran has not halted its most sensitive uranium enrichment work, a senior Iranian parliamentarian said, contradicting a statement by another lawmaker last week.

Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of the Iranian parliamentary committee for national security and foreign policy, arrives for a news conference after meeting Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, at the Iranian embassy in Damascus September 1, 2013. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri

Diplomats accredited to the U.N. nuclear watchdog said on Friday they had no information to substantiate the report that Tehran had halted enrichment of uranium to 20 percent. Israel also dismissed the original report as “irrelevant”.

Any halt of enrichment would be a big surprise, as Western experts believe Iran would want to use such activity as a bargaining chip to win relief from international sanctions.

An end to Iran’s higher-grade enrichment of uranium is a main demand of world powers negotiating with Tehran over its disputed nuclear work. Enriching uranium to 20 percent is sensitive as it is a relatively short technical step to increase that to the 90 percent needed for making a nuclear weapon.

“Enrichment to 20 percent is continuing,” state news agency IRNA quoted Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the head of parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee, as saying on Saturday.

His statement contradicted that of another senior lawmaker, Hossein Naqavi Hosseini, who had said Iran had stopped enriching uranium above 5 percent because it already had all the 20 percent enriched fuel it needs for a medical research reactor in Tehran.

In Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the real debate should be about dismantling Iran’s entire nuclear program.

“We are not impressed by the discourse around the issue of 20 percent enrichment. The Iranians are deliberately focusing the debate on this issue - it is irrelevant,” Netanyahu said in public remarks to his cabinet.

At the United Nations last year, Netanyahu focused on stockpiles of uranium enriched to 20 percent in drawing a red line on a cartoon bomb that set a threshold for possible Israeli military action against Iran.

But Netanyahu told the cabinet that technological advances in Iran in the past year, in the form of advanced centrifuges, enabled it to “leap above the barrier of 20 percent enrichment and go directly from 3.5 percent enrichment to (military-grade) 90 percent within weeks”.

Iran and six world powers, known as the P5+1, are engaged in negotiations to bring about a diplomatic resolution to the dispute, which has raised fears of a new conflict in the Middle East and brought punishing sanctions on Iran’s energy, shipping, and banking sectors.

Their last meeting was held in October in Geneva, and another one is scheduled for November.

Netanyahu, whose country is widely believed to be the Middle East’s only nuclear power, has cautioned against any premature lifting of sanctions in the new diplomatic engagement with Iran.

“Iran must be stripped of its enrichment capability and its heavy water plant,” said Netanyahu, who discussed Iran with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Rome on Wednesday.

Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Dubai and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; editing by Mike Collett-White