Iran wants talks on its nuclear programme but rejects preconditions demanding it freeze the work, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Tuesday, just ahead of a United Nations deadline for Tehran to back down.
The UN Security Council has given Iran until Wednesday to stop enriching uranium. Tehran says the process will only make fuel for power plants but the West suspects Iran wants to refine uranium to the higher degree needed for the core of atom bombs.
“They tell us ‘Come and negotiate on Iran’s nuclear issue but the condition is to stop your activities’,” Ahmadinejad told a rally, broadcast on state TV. “We have said that we want negotiations and talks but negotiations under just conditions.”
The final say rests with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei but Ahmadinejad’s comments were in line with his and other senior officials’. All have vowed to pursue atomic work.
“If they say that we should close down our fuel-production facilities to resume talks, we say fine, but those who enter talks with us should also close down their nuclear fuel-production facilities,” Ahmadinejad said.
The United States has piled on pressure by sending a second aircraft carrier to the Gulf and slapping sanctions on some Iranian banks and companies.
Washington has not ruled out military action but says it is seeking a diplomatic solution and is not planning a war.
The BBC quoted unnamed diplomatic sources as saying contingency planning for any US attack went beyond targeting atomic sites to include most of Iran’s military infrastructure.
Iran’s nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani was to meet the head of the UN watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed ElBaradei, in Vienna on Tuesday. Iran has often sought 11th-hour talks before deadlines over its atomic ambitions.
ElBaradei is expected to report to the UN Security Council on Wednesday that Tehran has defied a 60-day deadline to suspend enrichment, as demanded in a December 23 resolution that also banned transfers of technology and know-how to Iran’s atomic programme.
ElBaradei said an Iranian refusal could bring tougher penalties.
Larijani said after a meeting in Vienna with Belgium’s foreign minister, before his session with ElBaradei, that “we had good talks on reasonable approaches we could take to restart negotiations”. He did not elaborate. Belgium has just become a non-permanent member of the Security Council.
US warships move in
The US aircraft carrier John C Stennis and warships in its group joined another US carrier in the strategic Gulf waterway on Monday, the US Navy said.
Rear Admiral Kevin Quinn, commander of the Stennis strike group, said in a statement his ships were “here to help foster stability and security in the region”. Analysts regard the deployment as a warning to Iran to retreat from enrichment work.
The BBC said in its report of possible US action: “It is understood that any such attack — if ordered — would target Iranian air bases, naval bases, missile facilities and command-and-control centres.”
Nuclear targets would include the uranium-enrichment facility of Natanz in central Iran where Tehran operates a few hundred centrifuges at a research level but plans to install thousands to achieve so-called “industrial-scale” enrichment.
ElBaradei said in a Financial Times interview that Iran would be able to install 3Â 000 centrifuges as the basis for “industrial scale” fuel production in six to 12 months.
Diplomats monitoring IAEA inspections have said Tehran has set up several cascades (interlinked networks) of 164 centrifuges each in the plant and is poised to activate them to feed in uranium for refinement into fuel at any time.
One diplomat said a nine-tonne container of uranium hexafluoride gas, the feedstock for nuclear fuel, had been lowered into the plant in recent days.
ElBaradei noted intelligence estimates that Iran remains four to eight years away from mastering the means to assemble an atom bomb, assuming it wanted one, and that meant ample time remained for talks. Sanctions alone would not work, he said.
Larijani previously said Iran might consider some kind of compromise deal, such as restrictions on the level to which Iran is allowed to enrich uranium. Diplomats say another proposal could let Iran run some centrifuges without injecting feedstock.
Diplomats say the West opposes such steps as Iran would be able to practice skills required to perfect the process.