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(photo credit: AP)
Iran's president declared Thursday that his country is working with the West to resolve the standoff over its nuclear program. But a Western diplomat said Iran has rejected a US-backed plan to export most of its enriched uranium, and wants instead to enrich to higher levels under UN supervision - a plan that could speed Teheran's ability to make a nuclear weapon.
The disconnect between the words of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Teheran's decision, as related by the diplomat, reflected the difficulties facing international negotiators trying to persuade Iran to give up enrichment - an activity that could be used to create fissile warhead material.
The US and allied countries were seeking Iranian agreement to a draft plan proposed last week by International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei at talks grouping negotiators from Iran, the US, Russia and France. One of them told The Associated Press that the draft would commit Iran to delivering 70 percent of its low-enriched uranium to Russia in one shipment for further enrichment and conversion into fuel for a Teheran research reactor.
Sending that amount in one batch would not leave Teheran with enough material to make weapons-grade uranium should it decide to make a warhead. Experts say Iran would need at least a year to produce enough to make up for the exported material, giving the international community a window in its efforts to persuade the Islamic Republic to freeze its enrichment program.
Shortly after the International Atomic Energy Agency announced Thursday that Iran had provided an "initial response" to the draft, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said the US needs "further clarification and I think its also fair to say that we need a formal response from Iran."
But a Western diplomat familiar with the Iran offer suggested that the Islamic Republic had rejected the main thrust of the offer - shipping out most of its stockpile - and was instead proposing to further enrich it inside Iran under IAEA supervision.
The Teheran research reactor needs fuel enriched to just under 20 percent - far from the 90 percent and above needed to make the fissile core of a nuclear weapon. Iran's stockpile is uranium enriched to just above 3 percent, suitable only for nuclear fuel.
But the higher the level of enrichment, the easier it is to further enrich to weapons-grade level. Thus, the proposal outlined by the diplomat is unlikely to be endorsed by the US and its allies. They would see enrichment from around 3 percent to almost 20 percent as bringing Teheran closer to nuclear weapons capacity instead of reducing such a threat.
"They don't want the LEU taken out," said the diplomat, referring to low-enriched uranium. "They want to enrich it there (in Iran) under IAEA supervision."
The diplomat also suggested the Iranians were eager for further one-on-one talks with the US after Washington this month broke with nearly three decades of policy of not negotiating formally and directly with Teheran.
"They want the US at the table to talk about how (the Americans) might be able to provide physical support for their (research) reactor to ensure there are no accidents," said the diplomat.
Ahmadinejad insisted that his country and the West were working more tightly together on nuclear cooperation than ever before.
"Today we reached a very important point," Ahmadinejad told a huge crowd in the northeastern shrine city of Mashhad. "Ground has been paved for nuclear cooperation."
But he again insisted his government "will not retreat even an iota" over Iran's right to pursue enrichment - despite three sets of U.N. Security Council sanctions for its refusal to freeze that program.
The world now recognizes Iran's right to nuclear power, said Ahmadinejad, asserting that his country welcomed "the West's change in behavior," and adding that Iran is ready to "shake any hand that is honestly extended toward us."
Since its clandestine enrichment program was revealed seven years ago, Iran has amassed about 3,300 pounds - or 1,500 kilograms - of low-enriched uranium at its cavernous underground facility at Natanz.
Natanz was Teheran's only known enrichment operation until it divulged late last month that it had been secretly building another plant.