TEHRAN, Iran – As diplomats began arriving in Geneva ahead of long-awaited talks to resolve the standoff over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the head of Tehran’s nuclear program on Sunday upped the ante, claiming a breakthrough that could make the Islamic Republic self-sufficient in the production of uranium.
In his announcement, probably aimed at bolstering Tehran’s bargaining position at the talks, Iranian Atomic Energy Organization head Ali Akbar Salehi said his nation had achieved the ability to produce its own yellowcake, uranium powder that is used in the process of creating nuclear fuel. By using ore mined in southern Iran, he said, Iran would no longer need imported uranium.
“The enemies and ill-wishers have always tried to create despair and disappointment among our youth, academicians, engineers and our nation, but today we witness the delivery of the first batch of yellowcake which is produced inside the country,” Salehi said at a news conference broadcast on state television.
The Obama administration and European allies have hoped sanctions already slapped on Tehran have inflicted enough pain that its leaders will negotiate limits on its nuclear program when they meet with six major world powers today and Tuesday in Geneva.
But Western officials say they are willing to further restrict Iran’s trade and access to foreign financing and investment if the Islamic Republic continues to plunge ahead with its nuclear program.
William J. Burns, the State Department’s No. 3 diplomat, told Congress on Wednesday that the United States will “continue to sharpen the choices” for Iran, rewarding cooperation but intensifying the costs of intransigence.
The White House said the yellowcake announcement Sunday was the latest hint that Iran is trying to create a nuclear weapon. Michael Hammer, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said that since Iran’s uranium supply “is not enough for a peaceful nuclear energy program, this calls into further question Iran’s intentions.”
He said the announcement wasn’t a surprise, since Iran “has been trying to develop an indigenous program for years.”
World powers have been trying to negotiate with Iran to set limits on its nuclear program since 2003. Talks were last held 14 months ago, when Iranian officials met in Geneva with representatives from China, the United States, Russia, Britain, France and Germany.
Western officials are setting the bar low for this week’s meeting, hoping only for a clear signal that Iran will finally engage on limiting its disputed nuclear program. Along with the United States, many nations suspect Iran is trying to develop nuclear weaponry know-how, while Iran insists it is interested only in peaceful uses of nuclear power.
But Iran’s goals for the meeting, and even the topics it is willing to discuss, remain unclear on the eve of the talks, which come just one week after the slaying of an Iranian nuclear scientist that Tehran has blamed on Israel and the West.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said he wanted to discuss a broad range of topics rather than focus on the narrow issue of the nuclear program. Countering Western complaints that Iran’s leadership is too divided to agree on a policy, Ahmadinejad said that it was the six powers that are divided.
“Iran is united, but they are divided, each wishing to pull a fish out for himself from this current,” he said.
Kaveh Afrasiabi, a political scientist in Massachusetts with close contacts in the Iranian government, said he believes the six powers have been under growing internal pressure that will limit their flexibility in the talks.
The U.S.-China relationship has been strained by the tensions over North Korea’s recent attack on a South Korean island, while the WikiLeaks disclosures of U.S. diplomatic cables have sharpened Washington’s tensions with allies, he said.
Western officials hope that deepening economic hardships in Iran will make the leadership more eager to find a way to deflect international pressure. They maintain that the sanctions have raised the price of imports to Iran by 20 percent to 25 percent, cost the economy billions of dollars in energy sector investments and severed access to international finance.
But that goal may be complicated by divisions among Iranian leaders on the talks.
Ahmadinejad’s faction appears interested in a deal and willing to trade away parts of the nuclear program to increase domestic support from Iranians who want to engage with the West and shore up its international legitimacy.
Harder-line elements, however, including supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appear hostile to any deal that might lead toward a rapprochement with the United States.
Diplomats say that one subject likely to be raised, later if not immediately, is Iran’s willingness to temporarily ship out a substantial share of its stock of enriched uranium in exchange for international energy and medical assistance.
Last year’s meeting led to a tentative deal under which Iran would have shipped out about 2,600 pounds of enriched uranium, a move that would have limited its ability to build nuclear weapons. But now U.S. officials are pressing for Iran to promise to send abroad a much larger amount, 6,600 pounds, because it has accumulated a much larger stockpile.
Last week, Iranian officials quickly dismissed the U.S. proposal, approved by the board of governors of the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, to create an international enriched uranium fuel bank. “It is more considered as monopolization of technology and science and nuclear apartheid,” Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said in Vienna on Thursday, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
In making the yellowcake announcement Sunday, Salehi said the uranium was taken from a southern Iran mine called Gachin near the city of Bandar Abbas that is well known to international inspectors. The yellowcake must be further processed at a uranium conversion facility near the central city of Esfahan before it is refined at an enrichment facility near the town of Natanz.
“Again Iran has shown the ill-wishers and international criminals that we are standing up to pressures, and resistance is the first lesson of our revolution, and we would like to assure you that we will make you regret your devilish moves,” Salehi said.
Enriched uranium can be used to power electricity plants, medical research reactors or, if highly refined, provide fissile material for nuclear bombs.
“Iran is searching for more uranium mines across the country,” a Tehran nuclear physicist, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Los Angeles Times. “Therefore, the fuel cycle from A to Z is complete.”