Iran warned Saturday it will enrich uranium to a higher level needed to power a research reactor if talks with the U.N. nuclear watchdog and world powers fail to help Iran obtain the fuel from abroad.
Such a step would heighten tensions in the standoff over Iran's nuclear program that are already running high over last month's revelation that the country is building a second enrichment facility.
The United States and its partners in the negotiations want Tehran to send some of its low enriched uranium to Russia to further process the material for use in a medical research reactor in the Iranian capital.
Enrichment is a central concern because the technology can be used to make fuel for nuclear power plants and research reactors at low levels or atomic weapons at high levels. Having the higher-level enrichment carried out abroad would be an important confidence-building step that could help ease Western concerns that Iran is seeking to use its civilian nuclear work as a cover for weapons development.
It would also be a long-sought compromise because Iran has repeatedly refused to involve an outside country, insisting it has the right to a full domestic enrichment program that it maintains is only for peaceful purposes such as energy production.
Ali Shirzadian, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, told The Associated Press Saturday that Iran will proceed to enrich its uranium to the higher level of about 20 percent needed for the Tehran reactor if no deal is reached in talks on Oct. 19 in Vienna.
That is still well below the 90 percent level of enrichment needed for nuclear weapons, but it would generate significant concern for the nations trying to persuade Iran to limit its enrichment program. So far, Iran has produced about a ton of uranium enriched to less than 5 percent.
Shirzadian said Iran will need up to 660 pounds (300 kilograms) of the more enriched uranium to keep the Tehran reactor running for another 10 to 15 years. He said the facility — which Iran says is used for medical and scientific research — only has enough fuel to run for another year and a half.
The more than 30-year-old five-megawatt reactor was built by the Americans before the 1979 Islamic revolution toppled the pro-U.S. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and brought hard-line clerics to power.
Shirzadian said Iran is open to discussing various proposals on the issue at the meeting in Vienna with officials from the U.S., France and Russia and the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency.
One proposal is for Iran to buy the enriched uranium from countries willing to sell it, and the other is for Iran to send some of its low enriched uranium to countries such as Russia for further processing, he said.
"The talks will be a test of the sincerity of those countries," he said. "Should talks fail or sellers refuse to provide Iran with its required fuel, Iran will enrich uranium to the 20 percent level needed itself," he said.
Shirzadian said Iran prefers to buy the fuel from the world market, saying that would be cheaper than producing it at home.
The head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, Mohamed ElBaradei, said last week in Tehran that there has been a "shifting of gears" in Iran's confrontation with the West to more cooperation and transparency.
A landmark meeting on Oct. 1 in Geneva put the negotiations back on track.
The West has new concerns, however, about the newly revealed uranium enrichment site near the holy city of Qom. ElBaradei said international inspectors would visit the facility on Oct. 25.
By Ali Akbar Dareini (AP)