TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran delivered a resolute message Sunday on the eve of talks with six world powers: We’re mining our own uranium now, so forget about stopping our nuclear ambitions.
The Islamic Republic said it has produced its first batch of locally mined uranium ore for enrichment, making it independent of foreign countries for a process the West fears is geared toward producing nuclear arms.
No matter the U.N. sanctions over the program, “our nuclear activities will proceed and they will witness greater achievements in the future,” Iranian nuclear chief Ali Salehi told state-run Press TV.
Western officials downplayed the announcement, saying it had been expected and that Iran did not have enough ore to maintain the large-scale enrichment program that Tehran says it is building as a source of fuel for an envisaged network of nuclear reactors.
“Given that Iran’s own supply of uranium is not enough for a peaceful nuclear energy program, this calls into further question Iran’s intentions and raises additional concerns at a time when Iran needs to address the concerns of the international community,” said Mike Hammer, spokesman of the U.S. National Security Council.
Sunday’s announcement makes clear that Iran does not consider uranium enrichment to be up for discussion at the talks beginning Monday in Geneva. Tehran is determined to expand the program instead of scrapping it as the U.N. Security Council demands.
Expectations for the talks had been low even before the announcement, with Iran saying it is prepared to discuss nuclear issues only in the context of global disarmament. Officials from some of the six powers have said they would be pleased if negotiations yielded no more than agreement to meet at a later date to explore common themes.
The ultimate aim of the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany is to commit Tehran to give up enrichment because of its potential use in making nuclear arms.
The talks in Geneva — the first in over a year — are meant to lay the cornerstone for establishing trust. Tehran says it does not want atomic arms, but as it builds on its capacity to potentially make such weapons, neither Israel nor the U.S. have ruled out military action if the Islamic Republic fails to heed U.N. Security Council demands to freeze enrichment and other nuclear programs.
The talks are expected to take two days. Saeed Jalili, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, will meet with EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, with Ashton’s office saying she will act “on behalf” of the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany. In fact, senior officials for those six powers will attend and do much of the talking with Tehran.
Ahead of the talks, Western officials urged Tehran to address international concerns about its nuclear activities.
Invoking possible military confrontation over Iran’s nuclear defiance, British Defense Secretary Liam Fox said Saturday that the Geneva talks need to make a serious start toward resolving the issue.
“We want a negotiated solution, not a military one — but Iran needs to work with us to achieve that outcome,” he said. “We will not look away or back down.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it was up to Iran to restore trust about its nuclear intentions, urging it to come to Geneva prepared to “firmly, conclusively reject the pursuit of nuclear weapons.”
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said a nuclear-armed Iran “was unacceptable for us.”
Sunday’s announcement by Salehi burdened the pre-talk atmosphere, adding to tensions left by the assassination last week of a prominent Iranian nuclear scientist and the wounding of another.
Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran and the country’s vice president, said Iran had for the first time delivered domestically mined raw uranium to a processing facility — allowing it to bypass U.N. sanctions prohibiting import of the material.
Salehi said the uranium ore concentrate, known as yellowcake, was produced at the Gachin uranium mine in southern Iran and delivered to the uranium conversion facility in the central city of Isfahan for reprocessing.
Yellowcake is processed into uranium hexafluoride, which later can be turned into a gas used as feedstock for enriching uranium. Uranium enriched to low grades is used for fuel in nuclear reactors, but further enrichment makes it suitable for atomic bombs.
Salehi said the delivery was evidence that the mysterious bombings targeting the two Iranian nuclear scientists would not slow the country’s progress.
“Today, we witnessed the shipment of the first domestically produced yellowcake … from Gachin mine to the Isfahan nuclear facility,” said Salehi, whose comments were broadcast live on state television.
Iran acquired a considerable stock of yellowcake from South Africa in the 1970s under the former U.S.-backed shah’s original nuclear program, as well as unspecified quantities of yellowcake obtained from China long before the U.N. sanctions.
Western nations said last year that Iran was running out of raw uranium as that imported stockpile diminished and asserted that Tehran did not have sufficient domestic ore to run the large-scale civilian program it said it was assembling.
But Salehi denied that local stocks were lacking and said the step meant Iran was now self-sufficient over the entire nuclear fuel cycle — from extracting uranium ore to enriching it and producing nuclear fuel. He said the activity will be carried out under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency and that a bigger uranium mine at Saghand, in central Iran, will be inaugurated “in the not too distant future.”
Salehi did not provide details on how much yellowcake had been transferred to Isfahan, but said the shipments from now on would be carried out “continuously.” State TV showed a large, covered truck apparently carrying the yellowcake.
Salehi had said in October that nuclear experts have discovered larger uranium reserves than previously thought at Gachin and were stepping up exploration of the ore.
A senior diplomat familiar with the issue from a member nation of the IAEA said that Iranian claims of domestic reserves were thought to be exaggerated. The diplomat, who is familiar with the issue, asked for anonymity because his information was confidential.
Since Iran’s clandestine enrichment program was discovered eight years ago, Iran has resisted both rewards — offers of technical and economic cooperation — and four sets of increasingly harsh U.N. sanctions meant to force it to freeze its enrichment program.
Member states of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty have a right to enrich domestically and Iran, which is a signatory, insists it wants nuclear fuel, not fissile warhead material.
But international concerns are strong because Tehran developed its enrichment program clandestinely and because it has deemed closed an IAEA probe meant to follow up on suspicions that Iran experimented with components of a nuclear weapons program. Iran denies the claimed experiments, calling them “fabrications” by the CIA that were provided to the IAEA.
Israel has threatened to attack Iran, even though Israel is believed to have stockpiled more than 200 nuclear weapons and it is not a member of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Jahn reported from Geneva.