A day before Western leaders were scheduled to open talks with Iran in Switzerland, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced on Wednesday that he was prepared to let a third party enrich uranium to the grade his country required for its nuclear reactor, rather than carry out the enrichment itself.
"One of the subjects on the agenda of this negotiation is how we can get fuel for our Teheran reactor," the president was quoted by ISNA news agency as saying, according to AFP.
"As I said in New York, we need 19.75-percent-enriched uranium. We said that, and we propose to buy it from anybody who is ready to sell it to us. We are ready to give 3.5%-enriched uranium, and then they can enrich it more and deliver to us 19.75%-enriched uranium."
Last week, the United States revealed the existence of a second hidden uranium enrichment facility that was being constructed in a mountain near Qom, some 160 kilometers south of Teheran.
"They have deceived the world and will continue to do so," said a top Israeli official Wednesday.
While the Geneva talks are are formally between chief Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili and the EU's Javier Solana, the US, Britain, France, Russia and Germany are sending senior officials. Washington will be represented by William Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs, while Russia is dispatching Sergey Ryabkov, a deputy foreign minister.
Ahead of Thursday's negotiations, the State Department stressed its hope that the session would open the door to more in-depth dialogue about ways Iran could alleviate concerns that its emerging nuclear program may be secretly developing nuclear weapons.
If Iran is willing to address the nuclear issues, then there likely will be subsequent meetings, State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley said in Washington.
"That process will take some time," Crowley said. "We're not going to make a snap judgment on Thursday. We're going to see how that meeting goes, evaluate the willingness of Iran to engage on these issues."
Crowley noted that President Barack Obama had said he intended to take a few months to assess Iran's position and consult with US negotiating partners before deciding what steps to take next.
According to Obama administration officials, the US wants to see Iran embrace the formula whereby the international community will freeze the threat of sanctions in exchange for Iran freezing its uranium enrichment program during negotiations.
The US officials didn't make that formula a condition of talks as the previous George W. Bush administration had done, but they did indicate Wednesday that significant steps such as the freeze would have to be undertaken for the US to be willing to participate in an ongoing negotiating process with Teheran.
"This, from the point of view of the United States, cannot be an open-ended process or talks just for the sake of talks. Especially in light of the revelations about Qom, we need to see - all of us need to see - practical steps and measurable results, and we need to see them starting quickly," said a senior US official.
The official reiterated previous demands that Iran provide information about the secret facility and other aspects of its nuclear program, and that it fully cooperate with the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency.
He also stressed in a briefing with reporters in Geneva that "in addition to concrete steps toward transparency, we need to see practical, tangible steps to build confidence in Iranian intentions."
He referred to the international negotiating consortium of the US, England, France, Germany, Russia and China as having "a longstanding proposal on the table that begins with an interim period, the so-called freeze-for-freeze, and leads to suspension, and that remains the starting point for us for discussions."
He lowered expectations for any quick breakthroughs on that or other moves, though, saying, "I think it's pretty safe to predict that this is going to be an extraordinarily difficult process. I doubt that it's going to be measured in terms of one meeting, although we'll see how the Iranians approach the meeting tomorrow."
America continues to see the nuclear issue as the critical subject of the discussions, the official reiterated, but he said the US would be raising a range of issues, including human rights, which some are urging could help strengthen the opposition forces in Iran.
Israeli officials, though, expressed skepticism that the talks would produce a positive outcome.
"There is no doubt that the Iranian style proves that they have no intention to seriously deal with what the West wants to achieve," the Israeli defense official said. "Iran is lying and deceiving the world and nothing is happening to them."
Even as they prepare for new talks Thursday with Iran on its nuclear program, the US and its allies are contemplating new and tighter sanctions on Teheran, in a clear signal of expectations that the negotiations may again end in failure.
Meanwhile, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei told CNN-IBN in an interview published Wednesday that Iran would be "well advised" to take Obama's offer to "engage in substantive negotiations without preconditions."
He said he hoped Thursday's meeting between the Islamic Republic and the six world powers would "usher in a comprehensive, meaningful dialogue."
ElBaradei went on to say that Iran's recently revealed uranium enrichment facility was a "setback to the principle of transparency."
He said Iran was "on the wrong side of the law," as it should have informed the UN nuclear watchdog "on the day it was decided to construct the facility."
He added that the plant violated international law.
However, he said that Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akhbar Salehi had told him "there are no centrifuges in the facility, there is no nuclear material, it is simply still just ready in terms of cables and construction."
When asked to respond to accusations that he had given Iran an "easy pass" in the past, the IAEA chief said, "The idea that we have been 'soft' or 'hard' is absolutely bonkers... We cannot just barge into a facility."
In terms of developing atomic weapons, ElBaradei told CNN-IBN that he did not believe Iran had "an ongoing nuclear weapons program."
He did, however, concede that Teheran might have "some weaponization studies," as was claimed by the US and others.
British intelligence services say Iran has been secretly designing a nuclear warhead "since late 2004 or 2005," according to a report in the Financial Times of London.
The report states that Great Britain believes that Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ordered the Islamic Republic to restart its weapons program about four years ago.
US intelligence has said it believes that Iran stopped work on building a nuclear weapon in 2003 and did not resume until two years ago.
In Teheran, Ahmadinejad said Thursday's talks would be a "test" of the world's respect for Iran's rights.
"This meeting is a test to measure the extent of sincerity and commitment of some countries to law and justice," Ahmadinejad said after a cabinet meeting Wednesday, according to the official IRNA news agency.
Teheran's acknowledgment that it has kept silent on the Qom plant - which can make both nuclear fuel and fissile warhead cores - has burdened the already heated atmosphere of the crucial negotiations to the point that expectations of what would constitute success are modest.
A US government official confirmed that commercial satellite images taken of the purported site near Qom were generally accurate. He confirmed that at least one of the buildings shown in the commercial images matched up to secret US government imagery of the Iranian uranium enrichment facility publicly revealed last Friday.
Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report. â€¢