ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Iran warned it would go on enriching uranium if it came under attack as its negotiators prepared for talks with six world powers on Friday aimed at defusing a crisis over Iran’s disputed nuclear program.
The United States said it expected no “big breakthroughs” in an eight-year-old stand-off over Iran’s nuclear ambitions in a return to negotiations between Iran and the powers in the Turkish city of Istanbul on Friday and Saturday.
Iranian negotiators told Reuters they had no fresh offer to make for a nuclear fuel swap but they were ready to discuss a deal based on terms offered last year, which were rejected then by the powers as being too little, too late.
Such a swap, under which Iran would part with low-enriched uranium (LEU) in exchange for fuel specially processed to run a Tehran reactor producing medical isotopes, would build confidence but not resolve core disputes.
Any accord is likely to hinge on persuading Iran to hand over most of its LEU stockpile to dispel suspicions that it was retaining enough of the material to develop a nuclear bomb by eventually enriching it to a very high level of fissile purity.
There is international concern that Iran’s declared civilian nuclear energy program is a cover for pursuit of atom bombs.
Washington wanted the pending talks to lead to a “meaningful and practical process” addressing central concerns about the nature of Iran’s nuclear activity, said Undersecretary of State Williams Burns, who will head the U.S. delegation in Istanbul.
Although Washington anticipated no breakthroughs on the broader issues in Istanbul, it was willing to discuss a fuel swap proposal updated to reflect Iran’s progress in enrichment since 2009, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
The six powers are the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany. A meeting in Geneva last month yielded no accord, after a hiatus in talks of more than a year.
In Moscow on Thursday, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), struck a defiant stance, saying enrichment would continue even if its nuclear facilities came under military attack.
“We have provided for another facility in Fordow near Qom,” Soltanieh said. “It is, so to speak, a reserve facility, so that if a site is attacked, we can continue the enrichment process.” Iran’s main enrichment complex is in Natanz. Fordow, a much smaller site that Tehran did not reveal to IAEA inspectors for over two years, is under construction inside a mountain bunker.
The United States and Israel have not ruled military action out if diplomacy fails and Iran nears atomic weapons capability.
But tougher sanctions and possible sabotage that may have slowed Iran’s nuclear advance could buy extra time for diplomacy and reduce the risk of military conflict, at least for now.
In Istanbul, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the talks should address prospects for easing economic sanctions on Tehran if it is more forthcoming with IAEA inspectors.
“There should also be other questions (on the agenda), including the prospects for lifting sanctions in accordance with how much more effectively Iran cooperates with the IAEA and resolves existing questions (about its nuclear activity),” he said in remarks carried by Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency.
Betraying underlying friction with Western powers over how tough to get with Iran, he also criticized the United States and European Union for imposing sanctions unilaterally that went beyond those agreed by the U.N. Security Council last June.
Escalating sanctions have been slapped on Iran since 2006 over its refusal to curb enrichment and become more transparent with U.N. inspectors — the powers’ core negotiating issues.
Iran has said its enrichment campaign is a sovereign right and not negotiable because it is solely to generate electricity.
Soltanieh said Iran was ready to discuss a swap on the basis of a proposal brokered in May last year with Brazil and Turkey. That proposal echoed terms that Iran had backed out of in 2009.
“We already made the maximum, historical concession” with the Tehran Declaration, and that remains on the table, he said.
That proposal was rejected by the United States and other powers since Iran’s LEU reserve had already doubled since the idea was first mooted in 2009, and Iran was also enriching to a higher level that could bring it closer to bomb-grade uranium.
Under the 2009 deal, Iran was to send out 1,200 kg of its LEU — roughly the amount needed for a bomb if refined to 90 percent. It was then to be enriched to 20 percent and made into fuel assemblies for the Tehran medical reactor, now running out of such fuel. Iran is now enriching to 20 percent itself.
Ali Baqeri, a deputy to Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, rejected a report by Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV news channel that Iran would propose a revised version of the deal.
“I haven’t heard about it,” Baqeri told Reuters as the Iranian delegation arrived in Istanbul on Thursday.
Another Iranian official said: “There is no new proposal.”
Signaling determination to keep up pressure on Iran, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the U.S. television network ABC the Obama administration may propose new unilateral sanctions on Iran, one of the world’s largest oil exporters.
But Lavrov said unilateral sanctions were “spoilers” interfering with efforts to strike a deal with Iran.