In a fresh display of brinksmanship, Iran on Monday postponed talks with Moscow on a plan to enrich its uranium in Russia to allay concerns it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons. Also Monday, diplomats told The Associated Press in Vienna, Austria, that Iran has started small-scale enrichment of uranium. The process is of concern because, depending on the degree of enrichment, the end product can be used for fuel for civilian reactors or nuclear weapons.
"Uranium gas has been fed into three machines," one senior diplomat familiar with Iran's nuclear file said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter. The talks with Russia were scheduled for Thursday but have been postponed indefinitely because of the "new situation," said presidential spokesman Gholamhossein Elham. The "new situation" is language Iran uses for a decision earlier this month by the International Atomic Energy Agency's to report Iran to the U.N. Security Council because of uncertainty about Tehran's nuclear intentions.
Iran strongly protested the referral to the Security Council, which was supported by Russia, an old ally of Tehran. Elham said the talks would reconvene at a time of "mutual agreement."
In Berlin, German Foreign Ministry spokesman Jens Ploetner said his government regrets Iran's decision to postpone the talks with Russia, which had been seen as offering a solution to international fears about Iranian enrichment. Iran maintains its nuclear program is designed solely to generate electricity, but the United States and some allies claim the program is a cover for producing an atomic bomb.
To produce significant amounts of enriched uranium, gas must be fed into hundreds of such machines. Uranium enriched to a low degree can be used for nuclear reactors, while highly enriched uranium is suitable for warheads. The IAEA is due to issue a report on Iran at its March meeting, after which the Security Council is expected to consider taking steps against the country, which could include sanctions.
After Iran was reported to the Security Council on Feb. 4, it said it would resume large-scale enrichment of uranium. But it has yet to declare that this has begun. On Monday, Elham was asked if Iran was delaying the resumption of large-scale enrichment until after the March meeting of the IAEA. He replied "no," but did not elaborate.
Moscow has proposed that Iran ship its uranium to Russia, where it would be enriched to a level suitable for nuclear reactors. It would then be returned to Iran to be used in its Russian-built reactor at Bushehr, which is due to start operations later this year.
The plan, backed by the United States and European Union, was an attempt to avoid international objections to Iran's enriching uranium by providing oversight so no weapons would be made. Iran had said the plan did not fulfill its requirements but was worth pursuing in negotiations.
Russia's Foreign Ministry said Monday that Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov would discuss Tehran's nuclear program with European Union leaders in Vienna this week. It did not mention Elham's announcement, reports the AP.
Elham also reiterated President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's statement Saturday that Iran will "revise" its policy toward IAEA regulations and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty if they are used against the country a veiled threat to withdraw from the pact.
Elham said the world must recognize Iran's rights as a signatory to the treaty and regulations. "Otherwise there is no reason to continue our current nuclear policy while we are deprived of the positive aspects of the treaty."
Tehran has stressed repeatedly that the treaty allows it to pursue a nuclear program for peaceful purposes and says it will never give up the right to enrich uranium to produce nuclear fuel.
Elham also repeated Iran's line that if the Security Council imposes sanctions on Iran, they will backfire.
"If some Western countries, provoked by Israel, intend to put pressure on Iran, then they will also lose. We do advise the United States and Europe to decide in a rational and prudent way," he said.