ISTANBUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Iran and the United States sent positive signals on Wednesday about the possibility of fresh talks on the Iranian nuclear program, which Washington suspects aims to develop atomic weapons.
Iran has given an assurance that it would stop enriching uranium to 20 percent purity if world powers agreed to a proposed nuclear fuel swap, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters in Istanbul.
The offer, conveyed to Davutoglu on Sunday, could bode well for an expected resumption of talks in September between Iran and major powers on the Islamic Republic’s atomic program, which Tehran says is for peaceful purposes and not for bombs.
Asked about Davutoglu’s comments, the U.S. State Department said Iran had often sent mixed signals but that the United States was “fully prepared” to resume talks among the six major powers and Tehran about Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran last met the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia in Geneva in October, when they discussed Iran sending some low-enriched uranium abroad in exchange for fuel for a Tehran reactor that makes medical isotopes.
“We hope to have the same kind of meeting coming up in the coming weeks that we had last October,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters. “We are interested in a process — more than one meeting.”
Uranium enrichment is a process that can produce fuel for nuclear reactors or, if carried out to a much higher degree, can yield fissile material for atomic bombs.
In February, Iran announced that it had started enriching uranium to 20 percent purity, from about 3.5 percent previously, raising concern that it might be planning to enrich uranium still further and to produce weapons grade material.
Since June, fresh sanctions have been imposed on Iran by the U.N. Security Council, the United States, and, on Monday, by the European Union, increasing the pressure on Tehran.
One of the demands made in repeated U.N. Security Council resolutions is that Iran suspend uranium enrichment entirely.
Turkey and Brazil brokered a deal in May for a nuclear fuel swap in Tehran, hoping that this would draw Iran and major powers back to the negotiating table, but the six powers were lukewarm about the plan. At the time, Iran said it would continue enriching uranium to 20 percent.
Davutoglu, who met his Iranian counterpart Manouchehr Mottaki and Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim on Sunday, said Iran was ready to lay to rest concern over its enrichment program if the proposed nuclear fuel swap went ahead.
“Another important message given by Mottaki during his visit to Turkey was that if the Tehran deal is signed and Iran is provided with the necessary fuel for its research activities, then they will not continue enriching uranium to 20 percent,” Davutoglu told a joint news conference with visiting German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.
Iran sent a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency on Monday, saying it was ready to negotiate the details of exchanging 2,646 pounds (1,200 kg) of its 3 percent enriched uranium for 265 pounds (120 kg) of 20 percent enriched uranium.
Davutoglu urged that talks on this subject with the so-called Vienna Group, comprising Russia, France, the United States and the IAEA, begin as soon as possible.
“The disagreements should be left aside and negotiations between the Vienna Group and Iran should be started right away,” he said. “As progress is made in those technical negotiations, the two sides will trust each other more.”
Davutoglu said Iran had also confirmed that EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton and Iran’s chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, could meet in early September, after the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
NATO-member Turkey has offered to store any swapped uranium and has gone into diplomatic overdrive in an attempt to ease tensions between Western allies and its neighbor.
A U.S. official said Iran may be trying to “have their cake and eat it too,” by swapping some low enriched uranium for nuclear fuel while continuing to enrich at some level.
“A lot depends on the details,” of what Iran is willing to do, he added, saying the West had responded coolly to Iranian initiatives earlier this year because they seemed designed to stymie U.N. Security Council sanctions that passed in June.
“Now that that process is completed, if Iran wants to engage on these subjects we are more than happy to have that conversation,” the official said.
Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Arshad Mohammed; editing by Patricia Wilson and Mohammad Zargham