TEHRAN - Iran will not halt its enrichment of uranium up to 20 percent, the country’s nuclear chief told state television on Sunday, backing away from an earlier offer that suggested it might be prepared to cease production of the higher-grade nuclear material.
The official, Fereydoon Abbasi, also announced that Iran would start building two new nuclear power plants in 2013 and that the Islamic Republic’s only active nuclear reactor is getting close to full production levels, after a delay of many years.
He made clear that there will be no suspension of enrichment by Iran, a key demand of a handful of United Nations Security Council resolutions. “We have no reason to retreat from producing the 20 percent because we need 20 percent uranium just as much to meet our needs,’’ Abbasi said, according to Iranian state TV.
Abbasi’s remarks are bound to further complicate already difficult nuclear talks between Iran and world powers, which after an unsuccessful meeting Wednesday and Thursday in Baghdad will continue in Moscow on June 18.
If the talks fail, the world powers are planning to tighten sanctions on Iranian exports and financial dealings as early as July 1, including placing an embargo on all purchases of Iranian oil in Europe.
Iran’s enrichment of uranium is at the center of those discussions, with Western countries suspecting the country of stockpiling enriched uranium that could rapidly be converted into weapons-grade material. Iran says it only wants to produce civilian nuclear energy.
Before the meeting in Baghdad, Abbasi had hinted that Iran was ready to compromise on its program of enriching uranium up to 20 percent with the isotope capable of sustaining nuclear fission, which it says it needs to fuel an aging US-designed medical reactor.
Iranian negotiators were under the impression that the Obama administration and its allies, in return, were willing to allow Iran to continue to enrich up to a lower percentage. But during the Baghdad meeting it became clear that such an offer is not on the table for now.
Instead world powers offered another proposal, which called for Iran to export its stockpile of the more highly enriched uranium and suspend any further production. In exchange, the country was to receive supplies of medical isotopes.
That plan was turned down by Iran’s negotiators, who made a counterproposal that would allow the Islamic Republic to continue to enrich uranium.
Iran wants Western oil embargo and banking sanctions eased before considering suspension of 20 percent enrichment. It also called for nuclear disarmament and cooperation in the fight against Somali pirates.
Each side expects the other to take the first significant steps, without wanting to compromise on key issues, a European diplomat familiar with the talks said.
Iranian officials have been unclear on how much of the more highly enriched uranium they want to produce.
A Friday report by the International Atomic Energy Agency stated that Iran has produced 145 kilograms of uranium enriched up to 20 percent, more than it ordered in 1988 from Argentina. In April, Abbasi said that Iran plans to build five more medical reactors and that it needed to create a stockpile of fuel for that purpose.
The six Western powers involved in the negotiations - the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany - fear the more highly enriched uranium could be quickly boosted to weapons-grade material of 95 percent. But there are experts who doubt that the country is capable of doing so.
The IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear activities also stated that in one instance, uranium enriched up to 27 percent was found. Abbasi said this was a technical or operational mistake. Western analysts on Friday agreed that such an explanation is plausible.
On Sunday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has been largely sidelined in the nuclear talks by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, urged the country’s Parliament to stand with him against the “evil ones’’ who he said have encircled the nation.
Ahmadinejad’s address to the opening session of the Parliament was seen as an appeal to conservative opponents who crushed his allies in an election earlier this month.
“Today, evils have been mobilized from all directions to put the Iranian nation under pressure. Removing and resisting the pressures, and cooperation, are the main priority today,’’ Ahmadinejad said without elaborating.
On Saturday Abbasi, who in 2010 survived an assassination attempt on his life, also highlighted complications in talks with the IAEA, which took place in Tehran two days before the meeting with world powers.
After the talks wrapped up, the IAEA’s Secretary General, Yukiya Amano, who had flown to Tehran for the first time since his appointment in 2009, said he was near an agreement with the Iranians on extra inspections, including at a military base, Parchin, near Tehran, where the agency suspects military nuclear activities.
Iran’s nuclear chief made clear that such an agreement would be signed only if the agency presented evidence to the Islamic Republic that proved it was pursuing illegal nuclear activities on the site.
“The reasons and documents have still not been presented by the agency to convince us to give permission for this visit,’’ Abbasi was quoted as saying by Fars news agency Saturday.