Iran has slowed its efforts to enrich uranium in what could be construed as a sign that it wishes to prevent a "direct confrontation" over its nuclear program, The New York Times reported on Thursday, citing US and other Western officials.
According to the report, Iran began in August to convert some of its uranium enriched to 20 percent into an oxide powder that can be used in its medical research reactor, but which cannot easily be used in a nuclear weapon.
Citing the latest quarterly report from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Times reported that had Iran not diverted the enriched uranium to the non-military research reactor project, it would now have enough material for one atomic bomb and be close to possessing enough medium-enriched uranium for a second bomb.
Former IAEA head of inspections Olli Heinonen told the Times that Iran appeared to be trying "to take heat away so that things didn’t go over the tipping point.”
While the Times quoted US officials as expressing caution against drawing firm conclusions from the move, one American official said it appeared Iran was attempting to "put more time on the clock to solve this."
Former US State Department intelligence analyst Greg Thielmann told the Times that the diversion of medium-enriched fuel to use in the research reactor could be seen as a "a negotiating signal, and a note of moderation.”
The report came as Iran started six days of naval drills in the Strait of Hormuz, the official IRNA news agency reported, maneuvers aimed at showcasing its military capabilities in what is a vital oil and gas shipping route.
Naval commander Habibollah Sayyari said the "Velayat 91" drills would last until Wednesday across an area of about 1 million square kilometers in the Strait of Hormuz, the Gulf of Oman and northern parts of the Indian Ocean, IRNA said.
Sayyari said the goal of the maneuvers were to show "the armed forces' military capabilities" in defending Iran's borders as well as sending a message of peace and friendship to neighboring countries.
Iranian officials have often said Iran could block the strait - through which 40 percent of the world's sea-borne oil exports pass - if it came under military attack over its disputed nuclear program.
On Thursday, an Iranian official said that Tehran would let UN nuclear inspectors into a military base they suspect was used for atomic weapons-related work, if threats against the Islamic Republic are dropped.
The IAEA believes Iran conducted explosives tests with possible nuclear applications at Parchin, a sprawling military base southeast of Tehran, and has repeatedly asked to inspect it.
Western diplomats say Iran has carried out extensive work at Parchin over the past year to cleanse it of any evidence of illicit activities but IAEA chief Yukiya Amano said earlier this month a visit would still be "useful."
"If the trans-regional threats (against Iran) dissipate, then they will find it possible to visit Parchin," Deputy Foreign Minister Hassan Qashqavi was quoted by the Iranian Labor News Agency as saying on Wednesday. The comments were also published on Thursday by online magazine Iran Diplomacy.
Qashqavi was most likely referring to Israel's threat of military strikes against Iran and the possibility of further sanctions by the West.
Reuters contributed to this report.