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World News

Iran starts uranium talks with powers after warning

VIENNA (Reuters) - Iran said it would not hesitate to enrich uranium to a higher degree itself without a deal at talks with big powers that began on Monday with the West hoping to reduce the risk of Tehran developing nuclear arms capability.

EDITORS' NOTE: Reuters and other foreign media are subject to Iranian restrictions on their ability to film or take pictures in Tehran. Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad waves to journalists during an official welcoming ceremony for his Senegalese counterpart Abdoulaye Wade (not pictured) in Tehran October 17, 2009. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl

The meeting of Iranian, Russian, French and U.S. officials started in Vienna shortly after state-run Iranian television said Tehran would not deal directly with France since it had failed to deliver “nuclear materials” in the past.

It was not immediately clear what effect this would have on the talks. They aimed to flesh out a deal for Iran to ship enriched uranium to Russia and France for further processing and return to Tehran to fuel a reactor that makes medical isotopes.

Other official Iranian media said another reason for Iran being unwilling to talk directly to France was alleged French interference with efforts of the U.N. nuclear watchdog and Iran to improve cooperation.

The Vienna meeting hosted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) offered the first opportunity to build on proposals for defusing a protracted standoff over Iran’s nuclear activity raised at a high-level meeting in Geneva on Oct. 1.

But Iran struck a defiant tone hours ahead of the meeting.

Nuclear energy agency spokesman Ali Shirzadian said it was not “economically feasible” for Iran to further purify low enriched uranium (LEU) itself to yield the 150-300 kg of material that it needs for the reactor, but that it would do so if the Vienna talks “do not bring about Iran’s desired result”.

Iran won a reprieve from harsher U.N. sanctions by agreeing in Geneva to IAEA inspections of a hidden nuclear site and, in principle, to send LEU to Russia and France for processing to replenish the dwindling fuel reserves of the Tehran reactor.

But it sent only a lower-level technical delegation to the Vienna talks headed by its IAEA ambassador, not its nuclear energy agency chief, indicating it may not be ready for a final agreement this week.

Western officials said Iran tentatively agreed to major aspects of the proposal in Geneva. Tehran has denied this.

“The talks this week are supposed to seal the deal,” said a senior Western diplomat, speaking on ground rules of anonymity.

“But, since we have had no negotiations thus far with the Iranians, the next couple of days could reopen a lot of what we hoped was already agreed in principle.”

The talks on IAEA premises, which began with a closed-door address by agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei, could run anywhere from a few hours to three days, diplomats said.

ALLEGATIONS OVER BOMBING

The meeting could be clouded by Iranian allegations that the United States and Britain backed militants who killed 42 people including six senior Revolutionary Guards commanders in a suicide bombing on Sunday.

Shirzadian told the official IRNA news agency that providing fuel for the Tehran reactor was “a good test to see whether the West is honest with Iran”. He said Iran’s programme to produce 5-percent LEU would continue, whatever the outcome.

“We will never abandon our right (to enrich),” he said.

Western diplomats say Tehran must ultimately scale down the programme to dispel fears of a growing LEU stockpile being enriched to 90 percent purity for atomic bomb fuel. LEU is used to run civilian nuclear power stations.

The West fears Iran’s nuclear programme is a front to obtain a bomb. Iran says it needs nuclear technology to generate power.

Western diplomats said Iran had signalled in Geneva that it was ready to ship about three-quarters of its declared stockpile of 5-percent-enriched uranium to Russia for refinement to 19.7 percent purity, then to France for fabrication into fuel rods.

The material would be resistant to higher enrichment.

That would buy time for big power diplomats to negotiate farther-reaching Iranian measures, such as a freeze on enrichment growth and unfettered IAEA inspections, to remove suspicions of a clandestine agenda to develop nuclear weapons.

Iran’s LEU stockpile has no apparent civilian use since Iran has no operating nuclear power plants, but is now enough to fuel one atomic bomb, if Tehran chose to enrich it to weapons-grade.

Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Tehran and Sylvia Westall in Vienna; Editing by Janet Lawrence

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