TEHRAN — Iran is signaling a possible compromise offer heading into crucial 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 was floated by Fereidoun Abbasi Davani, the country’s nuclear chief, as part of the early parrying in various capitals before negotiations get underway Friday. It suggested that sanctions-battered Iran is ready to bargain, although there were conflicting signals coming from Tehran on Monday.
The new gambit appeared to fall short of Western demands that Iran hand over its most potent nuclear material and ease a standoff that has spooked oil markets and produced threats of an Israeli military strike.
“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.’’
Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, was quoted on the Iranian Parliament’s website Monday as saying he hopes for some progress in the talks. But he also struck a different tone from Abbasi, warning that Iran would not accept any preconditions.
The talks involving Iran and the five permanent UN Security Council nations plus Germany are the first direct negotiations on Tehran’s nuclear program since a swift collapse more than 14 months ago, and will be held in Istanbul.
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 United States 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.
Abbasi said Tehran could eventually stop its production of the 20 percent 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 percent for power generation.
The framework addresses one key Western concern. The United States and others worry the higher-enriched uranium could be turned into warhead strength - more than 90 percent enriched - in a matter of months.
Yet Abbasi also directly snubbed a demand backed by the United States and some other countries. They want Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium to be transferred out of the country.
Abbasi indicated that it would remain in Iran.
“Such a stockpile could enable Iran to make a bomb in the future, should it decide to do so,’’ said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born political analyst now based in Israel.
“Unless an agreement is reached whereby this stockpile is transferred abroad for conversion into nuclear fuel or, at the very minimum, placed under international supervision in another country, it will be very difficult for the [world powers] to accept Iran’s current offer,’’ he said.
The United States and its allies have sought to press Iran to suspend uranium enrichment in exchange for receiving reactor-ready fuel from abroad. Iran has pushed back by refusing to curtail enrichment, which is permitted under the UN treaty overseeing the spread of nuclear technology.
Also Monday, the US Navy said it has sent a second aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf region amid the rising tensions with Iran over the nuclear program.
The deployment of the nuclear-powered USS Enterprise along with the Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group marks one of the few times the Navy has had two aircraft carriers operating in waters near the Persian Gulf, said Commander Amy Derrick-Frost of the Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet.
The warships will patrol the Gulf’s strategic oil routes that Iran has threatened to shut down in retaliation for economic sanctions the West has imposed on it because of its nuclear program. They also will support the American military operations in Afghanistan and antipiracy efforts off Somalia’s coast and in the Gulf of Aden.
The deployment of the second carrier is “routine and not specific to any threat,’’ Derrick-Frost said. She did not say how long the Navy will keep the increased military presence in region.
Last week, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said it was up to Iran to show that its assertion of rejecting nuclear weapons is “not an abstract belief but it is a government policy.’’
“And that government policy can be demonstrated in a number of ways, by ending the enrichment of highly enriched uranium to 20 percent, by shipping out such highly enriched uranium out of the country, by opening up to constant inspections and verifications,’’ she said at a conference in Istanbul to seek ways to aid opposition forces in Syria - Iran’s main Arab ally.
Clinton will not be attending Friday’s conference on Iran.