TEHRAN, Iran — Iran is signalling a possible compromise offer heading into critical talks with world powers deeply suspicious of its nuclear program: offering to scale back uranium enrichment but not abandon the ability to make nuclear fuel.
The proposal — floated by the country’s nuclear chief as part of the early parrying in various capitals before negotiations get under way Friday — suggested that sanctions-battered Iran is ready to bargain.
But this gambit, at least, appeared to fall short of Western demands that Iran hand over its most potent nuclear material and ease a standoff that has rattled nerves and spooked markets with seesaw oil prices and threats of Israeli military strikes.
“It is important for Iran to understand that the window is closing and that these talks are an opportunity,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday. “The decision rests with Iran.”
The talks involving Iran and the five permanent UN Security Council nations plus Germany, to be held in Istanbul, are the first direct negotiations on Tehran’s nuclear program since a swift collapse more than 14 months ago.
Despite far-reaching complexities, the dispute effectively boils down to one issue: Iran’s stated refusal to close down its uranium enrichment labs.
For Iran, uranium enrichment is a proud symbol of its scientific advances and technological self-sufficiency. Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, called the nuclear program on Sunday “a locomotive” for other showcase projects such as Iran’s space effort.
The U.S. and its allies contend that the same sites that make fuel for reactors could also eventually churn out weapons-grade material. Iran has repeatedly insisted that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.
The ideas put forth late Sunday by the nuclear chief, Fereidoun Abbasi, are an attempt to at least acknowledge this huge divide.
Abbasi said Tehran could eventually stop its production of the 20 per cent enriched uranium needed for a research reactor, used for medical research and treatments. But, he added, Iran would continue enriching uranium to lower levels of about 3.5 per cent for power generation.
The framework addresses one key Western concern.
The U.S. and others worry the higher-enriched uranium could be turned into warhead strength — more than 90 per cent enriched — in a matter of months.