BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Iran’s announcement that it has achieved the capacity to make nuclear fuel on an industrial scale drew international skepticism on Tuesday, but it may open an opportunity for negotiations with the West.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared amid patriotic fanfare on Monday that Tehran was now able to enrich uranium on a large scale for a program it insists is purely civilian but which the West suspects is aimed at developing weapons.
Russia was quick to say it saw no sign the Iranians had made significant progress, a view echoed privately by Western experts who saw the vaguely phrased boast as a public relations coup.
“We are not aware of any technological breakthroughs in the Iranian nuclear program recently which would change the nature of work on enrichment being carried out in the country,” a Russian Foreign Ministry statement said.
Iran has managed to make a pilot project with two 164-centrifuge cascades work episodically, according to a February 22 report by the U.N. nuclear watchdog, but diplomats say it has apparently had technical problems in expanding the network.
Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani was quoted by Iranian media as saying Tehran had built 3,000 centrifuges, but Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow he believed the new centrifuges were not in full operation.
Mark Fitzpatrick, an expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said Ahmadinejad’s speech was strikingly imprecise, disclosing neither how many centrifuges were working nor whether uranium hexafluoride gas had been introduced into them.
“This was very much a political event staged to reassure a domestic audience that they are making progress towards achieving some milestones and to show the world that Iran is not about to comply with the U.N. Security Council demands despite the sanctions,” he said.
But by boosting national pride and asserting independence, the announcement may have given Larijani a window to explore a diplomatic solution with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, Fitzpatrick said.
Ahmadinejad’s dramatic resolution last week of a standoff with old nemesis Britain over Iran’s capture of 15 UK naval personnel may also have set the stage for diplomacy.
“They could use the announcement to say: we have achieved what we set out to achieve. Now we can pause and enter into negotiations from a position of strength,” Fitzpatrick said.
Diplomats familiar with Solana’s exploratory contacts with Larijani say the outcome is uncertain and the Iranian decision-making process remains frustratingly opaque.
The negotiators have had two telephone calls since the Security Council ratcheted up sanctions against Iran last month over its refusal to suspend enrichment.
The sticking point remains Tehran’s unwillingness to accept even a time-limited suspension, EU officials say.
“We have passed the stage of setting conditions for talks ... We believe that other parties should move forward based on new realities,” Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told a news conference with a visiting Afghan official on Tuesday.
“We are fully prepared for talks without preconditions to reach a solution,” he added.
Solana, mandated not only by the main European powers — Britain, France and Germany — but also by the United States, Russia and China, appeared on the brink of a deal last September when he was due to meet Larijani at U.N. headquarters.
But the Iranian negotiator never showed up and it became clear that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has more say than the hardline Ahmadinejad on the matter, had not authorized a suspension.
At the time, Iran was in a mood of hubris with the United States mired in worsening violence in Iraq, oil prices close to record levels and Israel licking its wounds after inconclusive fighting with Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.
Tehran has since been isolated in votes at the International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.N. Security Council, found in breach of treaty obligations and had targeted sanctions imposed.
Russia has held back the first delivery of fuel to Iran’s only nuclear power plant, ostensibly over a payment dispute.
Washington has raised military pressure by sending a second aircraft carrier to the Gulf and detaining five Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Iraq, and talk of possible U.S. or Israeli military action has jangled nerves.
While the U.N. sanctions are largely pinpricks so far, U.S. Treasury pressure is restricting Iran’s access to the dollar-denominated economy and making European countries and companies think again about trade credits and investments.
EU policymakers say that whatever Iran’s true technical capacity, it is still several political decisions away from developing a nuclear weapon, allowing time for negotiation.
The West hopes the package of offers of civilian nuclear assistance, economic cooperation and security assurances that Solana presented to Tehran last year may seem more attractive as tightening sanctions, diplomatic isolation and military menace take their toll on Iran’s leadership.
additional reporting by Edmund Blair in Tehran and Karin Strohecker in Vienna