(photo credit: Associated Press)
The head of Iran's nuclear program said Monday that the country received a new proposal last week from the United States, Russia and France, three of the countries trying to rein in Teheran's uranium enrichment program.
A US official denied a new proposal had been made by the three powers, saying the only offer from them remains a plan brokered by the UN's nuclear monitoring agency in October calling for Iran to ship most of its stockpile of enriched uranium out of the country. The official, based in a European capital, spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly on the issue.
Russia's Foreign Ministry also denied the existence of a new proposal, according to the Interfax news agency.
A semiofficial Iranian news agency reported the country's nuclear chief, who is also Iran's vice president, and other officials were studying a new joint proposal. The report quoted Ali Akbar Salehi as saying a new offer was made after the country announced last week it had begun enriching uranium to a higher level than previously — something that could put it on a faster track to producing weapons-grade nuclear material.
The announcement of new enrichment work alarmed the world powers trying to ensure Iran does not acquire the ability to make weapons and appeared calculated to boost Iran's leverage in those negotiations. The latest remarks, about a new proposal, seemed meant to show Iranians that their government's strategy was paying off.
In a sign that world powers are not backing down, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Monday that Iran was becoming a military dictatorship
. The assertion reflected the rising tension over both Iran's nuclear program and its crackdown on anti-government protesters.
Clinton said the Obama administration is trying to "send a message to Iran — a very clear message" that the US is still open to engagement "but that we will not stand idly by while you pursue a nuclear program that can be used to threaten your neighbors and even beyond."
She made the comments in a speech to Arab students during a visit to Qatar, just across the Persian Gulf from Iran.
Monday's Iranian news report gave no details on the contents of the purported new proposal.
Under a deal worked out in October, Iran was to have sent 1.2 tons (1,100 kilograms) — around 70 percent of its stockpile — of low-enriched uranium to Russia in one batch by the end of last year for further enrichment, a step that would have eased international concerns the material could be processed for a bomb.
After further enrichment in Russia, France would convert the uranium into fuel rods that would be returned to Iran for use in a reactor in Teheran that produces medical isotopes used in treating cancer patients. Fuel rods cannot readily be further processed into weapons-grade material.
After weeks of conflicting signals from Iran, which ignored the year-end deadline for the plan, Teheran announced last week that its nuclear technicians had begun enriching uranium to the higher 20 percent level needed for the Tehran reactor.
That's still well below the 90 percent level needed for weapons, but the gap could be closed in just half a year, depending on how many centrifuges are operating, according to experts.
"After Iran's decision to go for domestic production of 20 percent-enriched uranium, a proposal was given to us by Russia, France and the United States, which we are reviewing," Salehi was quoted as saying by Iran's ILNA news agency.
Nuclear experts and officials in the US and other countries said Iran does not currently possess the technology to take that material and turn it into fuel rods needed to power the Teheran reactor, raising further doubts about Iran's ultimate intentions.
France is one of only a handful of countries in the world that have that capability, though Iran insists it will be able to make to rods.
Iran has maintained its nuclear work only has peaceful aims, such as civilian energy generation.
Salehi also said various countries have put forward proposals for
providing Iran with uranium processed to the higher, 20 percent level
and authorities were reviewing those plans, the ILNA report said. He
did not provide details.
He said Iran would stop its new enrichment work if it receives the material from abroad.