With critical talks on the Iranian nuclear program set to begin Friday, Tehran already rejected two key demands on Sunday by the world’s powers: Closing the Fordow underground uranium enrichment facility near Qom and stopping the enrichment of uranium to 20 percent.

Fereydoon Abbasi Davani, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency, called the Western diplomats’ demands “irrational,” according to AFP.

AFP quoted Davani as saying in an interview with the Iranian ISNA news agency that the Fordow facility had to be built underground because of the West’s threats to attack the Islamic Republic’s nuclear facilities.

“If they do not threaten us and guarantee that no aggression will occur, then there would be no need for countries to build facilities underground.

They should change their behavior and language,” he said.

Davani added that Iran would continue to produce uranium enriched to 20%, but not “more than we need, because it is not in our benefit to produce it and keep it.”

Iran claims it needs 20% enriched uranium to produce medical isotopes in its Tehran Research Reactor, while the West believes the 20% enriched uranium is a stepping stone to creating nuclear weapons.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu ridiculed the isotopes claim during his speech to the America Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference last month, saying: “A country that builds underground nuclear facilities, develops intercontinental ballistic missiles, manufactures thousands of centrifuges and absorbs crippling sanctions, is doing all that in order to advance... medical research. So you see, when that Iranian ICBM is flying through the air to a location near you, you’ve got nothing to worry about. It’s only carrying medical isotopes.”

Getting Iran to suspend its high-level uranium enrichment and close the bunker at Fordow are “near-term priorities” for the United States and its allies, a senior US official said on Sunday, confirming an earlier New York Times report.

Those priorities overlap with conditions – first published last week in The Jerusalem Post – that Defense Minister Ehud Barak outlined in a statement he released Sunday.

Barak said Iran must open all of its nuclear facilities to the IAEA, disclose its entire history of activity relating to its nuclear weapons program and surrender its entire stockpile of uranium – approximately 120 kilograms – enriched to 20%.

In addition, Barak said that Iran would need to suspend all of its enrichment activity and transfer the majority of the 5 tons of uranium enriched to 3.5% out of the country, leaving just enough needed for energy purposes.

If Iran complied with these conditions, Barak said that Israel would agree to an arrangement whereby a third country would transfer fuel rods to Iran for the purpose of activating the Tehran Research Reactor.

“The goal will be to ensure that Iran cannot build a nuclear weapon for many years,” a senior defense official explained.

In a CNN interview on Sunday, Barak said Israel had told both the US and the Europeans that it “expected the threshold for successful negotiations to be clear,” namely that there is “no more enrichment to 20%,” and that all uranium enriched to 20% be removed to a “trusted” neighboring country.

Barak explained that Israel’s demand that Iran also surrender the majority of its uranium enriched to 3.5% was to prevent Tehran’s ability to still develop a nuclear weapon, albeit at a slower pace.

Barak warned that if the P5+1 – the US, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany – who are negotiating with Tehran, would set the threshold lower, the Iranians would have “bought their way into continuing their military program, slightly slower, but without sanctions,” at “a very cheap cost.”

Barak’s position was a bit more flexible than the one articulated by Netanyahu prior to a meeting with visiting Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti on Sunday. Netanyahu called for the removal of all enriched uranium, in addition to closing the Fordow facility and stopping all further enrichment.

Netanyahu said that the Iranians were using the talks to “stall and deceive” the world, and said Israel would follow the negotiations carefully.

Netanyahu’s demands varied slightly from what he said last month in Ottawa, where he did not say that all enriched uranium had to be removed, but only the uranium enriched beyond 3.5%.

While Israel hopes the talks will succeed in stopping Iran’s nuclear pursuit, there is general skepticism within the defense establishment that Tehran will cave in to the pressure and suspend all of its nuclear activity.

“It’s clear that the depth of the sanctions is different from what we had in the past and it has its impact... But I don’t believe that this amount of sanctions and pressure will bring the Iranian leadership to the conclusion that they have to stop their nuclear military program,” Barak said in the CNN interview.

Meanwhile, Iranian media reported Sunday that the new round of talks with the P5+1 would resume in Istanbul on Friday. The last round of talks collapsed there more than a year ago.

A return to the table had been in doubt after Iran and the P5+1 countries released conflicting statements about the venue.

Tehran had earlier voiced concerns about holding them in Turkey, whose opposition to Iran’s ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, has angered the Islamic Republic.

“After weeks of debates, Iran and the six world powers agreed to attend a first meeting in Istanbul,” the semi-official Fars news agency reported, citing unnamed sources. Staterun English language Press TV carried the same report.

The Fars news agency also said the sides had agreed to a second round of talks in Baghdad if there was progress in Turkey. There was no immediate comment on the venue from the world powers.

Turkey’s NTV news quoted Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as saying: “It wouldn’t be appropriate to make a statement on an issue that hasn’t been confirmed. As soon it’s confirmed, we will immediately share this with you.”

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, meanwhile, related to Iran during his meeting with the visiting Italian prime minister, saying that Israel has “no problem” with the Iranian people, and until the Islamic revolution in 1979 had friendly ties with that country.

Israel’s problem, he said, was with the “extreme ayatollahs” leading that country.

Beyond the nuclear problem, Liberman said, Iran also radiates a message of violence and complete disregard for international norms, evident over the last few months in the violent takeover of the British embassy in Tehran, the plan to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in the US, support for Assad’s ruthless regime and the death sentence imposed on a Muslim who converted to Christianity.

Jerusalem Post staff and Reuters contributed to this report.

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