Iran's top security official, Ali Larijani, said Wednesday he would hold negotiations with Western officials over the country's controversial nuclear program during a security conference in Germany this weekend. His comments suggested Iran may be on a new diplomatic offensive in efforts to stave off sterner measures from the UN Security Council, should it fail to meet a 60-day deadline to suspend uranium enrichment that was imposed Dec. 23.
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"On the sidelines of the Munich conference, there will be some negotiations with Western parties," Larijani was quoted as saying by Iran's official IRNA news agency.
Larijani, who will for the first time head the Teheran delegation to the Feb. 9-11 gathering in Munich, Germany, unlike earlier gatherings that were attended by lower level Iranian officials, sidestepped questions whether those talks would directly involve US representatives.
"We have never said that we don't negotiate," Larijani said. He would not clarify whether he would talk to Europeans only or to Americans as well. On Monday, he denied that he might meet with Americans.
Larijani's meeting with Western officials would be the first such meeting since the United Nations slapped limited sanctions on Iran in December over Teheran's refusal to halt uranium enrichment which the West fears could lead to nuclear bomb making.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates is also expected to attend the Munich gathering.
Iran's influential former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a top figure in the clerical leadership, said Wednesday that "diplomacy is the only path for important international and regional issues ... Diplomacy can bring trust between the two sides."
"Placing pre-conditions for diplomacy on Iran's nuclear program is a mistake by European countries, which took this position under pressure from some powers," he said, referring to the United States.
Larijani also said that the US demands this week for the UN nuclear watchdog agency to step up pressure on Iran had "no legal justification."
As a member of the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran is "enjoying full technical cooperation with the IAEA," Larijani said.
Diplomats accredited with the IAEA in Vienna, Austria, said on Monday that Iran has set up more than 300 centrifuges in two uranium enrichment units at its underground Natanz complex.
The move is a direct challenge to the Security Council and potentially opens way for larger scale enrichment operations. Iranian leaders have repeatedly said the Natanz underground hall would first house 3,000 centrifuges and ultimately 54,000 of the machines.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki reiterated on Wednesday the country's determination to pursue its nuclear program, which it says is peaceful.
Asked about those two new cascade units at Natanz, Mottaki dismissed any irregularities. He said the facility is "monitored by the IAEA cameras" and that activity at the plant is "following its normal trend."