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Iran eyes talks after nuclear boasts

February 16, 2012

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Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attends the unveiling ceremony of new nuclear projects in Tehran — Reuters

TEHRAN:Iran on Thursday expressed hopes of reviving moribund talks with world powers, a day after the Islamic republic unveiled what it described as major progress in its controversial nuclear programme.

“We have always welcomed the principle of negotiations and we believe that, with a positive approach and spirit of cooperation, there can be a step forward in these negotiations,” foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast was quoted as saying by the Fars news agency.

Iran on Wednesday sent a letter confirming its readiness to discuss resuming negotiations in response to an October 2011 offer in that sense made by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

The last round of talks between Iran and the so-called P5+1 group,UN Security Council permanent members Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, plus Germany, collapsed in Turkey in January 2011.

Iran's tardy reply to Ashton appeared to be linked to the timing of its nuclear announcements also made on Wednesday, which collectively suggested the country had made strides in its atomic activities despite severe Western and UN sanctions.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, wearing a white coat, oversaw what was described on state television as the insertion of Iran's first domestically produced, 20-percent enriched fuel plate into Tehran's research reactor.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Wednesday ordered Iran to “go build” four more nuclear research reactors in addition to the sole one operating in Tehran.

“It has been estimated that four nuclear reactors in four different spots in the country are needed. Go build them, to carry out research activities and provide radio-medicine needed by the country,” he said in a speech on state television.

He and other officials also said Iran had added 3,000 more centrifuges to its uranium enrichment efforts and was stepping up exploration and processing of uranium yellowcake.

The declarations were meant to underline Iran's progress in mastering all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle and underline its commitment to what it said was a purely peaceful atomic programme for energy generation and medical use.

They also underlined the Islamic republic's determination to push on with nuclear activities despite US and EU sanctions aimed at throttling its economy,especially its all-important oil exports, and despite speculation Israel or the United States could launch air strikes against its nuclear facilities.

Russia, which built Iran's first nuclear power plant and has far warmer ties with Tehran has thus far has protected Iran against Western diplomatic efforts to broaden sanctions,has often stressed the need for talks and said too much pressure on Tehran was counterproductive.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabko suggested time was not on the side of the world powers and urged talks take place, with real concessions for the Iranians, otherwise the nuclear risks would increase.

Making a case for a renewed dialogue with Iran, Ryabkov said four rounds of UN sanctions and additional measures by Western nations had had “zero” effect on its nuclear programme.

“The Iranian side is indeed making progress in its nuclear programme,”Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the specialised journal Security Index.

Ryabkov emphasised that “an Iran with nuclear weapons is not an option for Russia” but said there was no “hard, unequivocal evidence” that nuclear work which Tehran says is for purely civilian purposes was in fact aimed at producing a bomb.

“We have no smoking gun confirming the presence of a military component and a military aspect of the Iranian nuclear programme,” he said in the interview with the journal Security Index.

Meanwhile, China urged the UN atomic watchdog to step up cooperation with Iran in a bid to restore trust over Tehran's nuclear ambitions, after the Islamic state unveiled progress in its atomic programme.

“As a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran has the right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy and it should also fulfil corresponding international obligations,” foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said.

“The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) should strengthen contact and cooperation with Iran in order to restore the international community's trust in the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear programme.”

But Washington, which fears Iran is trying to develop atomic weapons, was quick to dismiss Wedesday's announcements as “hyped” and “not big news”.

The Iranians have for months been boasting of progress, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, but they are in fact “many, many months behind” their own calendars.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak told Israeli state radio in a telephone interview from Tokyo that the Iranians were “boasting of successes they have not achieved,” even though he admitted they “are continuing to progress” in the nuclear field.

“The Iranians want to give the impression they are more advanced to create the impression they have passed the 'point of no return', which is not true,”he said.

Tensions between the two arch-foes rose significantly this week after a series of bomb incidents in India, Thailand and Georgia targeting Israeli diplomats.

Israel blamed them on Tehran, which denied any involvement.

A high-level IAEA delegation visited Tehran late last month to discuss the concerns.

But one diplomat at IAEA headquarters in Vienna said afterwards that the Iranians “quite cleverly stonewalled for three days.”

The delegation is due to return to Tehran next Monday. The outcome of those discussions could be key in determining the path towards wider talks between Iran and the P5+1.