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Iran floats compromise on uranium enrichment program; But nation won't stop making nuclear fuel

Iran is signaling a possible compromise offer heading into critical talks with world powers deeply suspicious of its nuclear program: offering to scale back uranium enrichment but not abandon the ability to make nuclear fuel.

The proposal -- floated by the country's nuclear chief as part of the early parrying in various capitals before negotiations get under way Friday -- suggested that sanctions-battered Iran is ready to bargain.

But this gambit, at least, appeared to fall short of Western demands that Iran hand over its most potent nuclear material and ease a standoff that has rattled nerves and spooked markets with seesaw oil prices and threats of Israeli military strikes.

"It is important for Iran to understand that the window is closing and that these talks are an opportunity," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday. "The decision rests with Iran."

The talks involving Iran and the five permanent U.N. Security Council nations plus Germany, to be held in Istanbul, are the first direct negotiations on Tehran's nuclear program since a swift collapse more than 14 months ago.

Despite far-reaching complexities, the dispute effectively boils down to one issue: Iran's stated refusal to close down its uranium enrichment labs.

For Iran, uranium enrichment is a proud symbol of its scientific advances and technological self-sufficiency.

The United States and its allies contend that the same sites that make fuel for reactors could also eventually churn out weapons-grade material. Iran has repeatedly insisted that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.

The ideas put forth late Sunday by the nuclear chief, Fereidoun Abbasi, are an attempt to at least acknowledge this huge divide. Abbasi said Tehran could eventually stop its production of the 20 percent enriched uranium needed for a research reactor, used for medical research and treatments. But, he added, Iran would continue enriching uranium to lower levels of about 3.5 percent for power generation.

Abbasi also insisted that Iran will never close down its new underground enrichment facilities south of Tehran, saying it would be "illogical" for the West to raise such a demand.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi was quoted on the Iranian parliament's website Monday as saying he hopes for some progress in the talks. But he warned that Iran would not accept preconditions -- an apparent reference to last year's impasse.

In another development, the exiled son of the toppled shah of Iran called on Israel not to bomb his home country, but rather to help the opposition to the ruling system, in an interview aired Monday on Israeli television. Prince Reza Pahlavi told Israel's Channel 10 TV from his home in Washington that bombing Iran would play into the hands of the regime. Instead, he appealed for help saying the Jewish state should put its "technological, financial and other resources at our disposal."