BY JULIAN BORGER
Talks between Iran and world powers on a deal to ease concerns about Tehran’s nuclear drive started well on Monday, the United Nations atomic agency chief said, despite Iran’s reported refusal to negotiate with France.
The meeting hosted by the IAEA offered the first opportunity to build on proposals to defuse the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program raised at a high-level meeting in Geneva on Oct. 1.
“We’re off to a good start. We have had a constructive meeting. Most technical issues have been discussed. We will continue the meeting at 10 A.M. tomorrow,” Mohamed ElBaradei told reporters in Vienna on Monday.
Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency, endorsed Elbaradei’s remarks, saying he was speaking on Tehran’s behalf, but refused further comment.
The meeting of Iranian, Russian, French and U.S. officials started in Vienna shortly after state-run Iranian television said Tehran would not deal directly with France since it had failed to deliver “nuclear materials” in the past.
Iran’s sudden move could make it harder to flesh out a tentative agreement under which Iran would ship enriched uranium to Russia and France for more processing before it is sent back to Tehran to fuel a reactor that makes medical isotopes.
Other official Iranian media said another reason for Iran being unwilling to talk directly to France was French interference with IAEA-Iranian efforts to improve cooperation.
A senior diplomat familiar with the talks denied rumors that France had left the talks because of Iran’s position.
Iran is under pressure because of its record of secrecy and restricting IAEA inspections of its atomic program which the West suspsects is aimed developing a nuclear bomb.
Iran says it only wants nuclear technology to generate electricity and struck a defiant tone ahead of the meeting.
Nuclear energy agency spokesman Ali Shirzadian said it was not “economically feasible” for Iran to purify further low enriched uranium (LEU) itself to yield the 150-300 kg of material that it needs for the reactor, but it would do so if the Vienna talks “do not bring about Iran’s desired result”.
Iran won a reprieve from harsher U.N. sanctions by agreeing in Geneva to IAEA inspections of a hidden nuclear site and, in principle, to send LEU to Russia and France for processing to replenish the dwindling fuel reserves of the Tehran reactor.
But Iran sent only a lower-level technical delegation to the Vienna talks headed by its IAEA ambassador, not its nuclear energy agency chief, indicating Tehran may not be ready for a final agreement this week.
Western officials said Iran tentatively agreed to major aspects of the proposal in Geneva. Tehran has denied this.
“The talks this week are supposed to seal the deal,” said a senior Western diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
“But, since we have had no negotiations thus far with the Iranians, the next couple of days could reopen a lot of what we hoped was already agreed in principle.”
The Vienna meeting could be clouded by Iranian allegations that the United States and Britain backed militants who killed 42 people including six senior Revolutionary Guards commanders in a suicide bombing on Sunday.
Shirzadian told the official IRNA news agency that providing fuel for the Tehran reactor was “a good test to see whether the West is honest with Iran”. He said Iran’s program to produce 5-percent LEU would continue, whatever the outcome.
“We will never abandon our right (to enrich),” he said.
Western diplomats say Tehran must ultimately scale down the program to dispel fears of a growing LEU stockpile being enriched to 90 percent purity for atomic bomb fuel. LEU is used to run civilian nuclear power stations.
Western diplomats said Iran had signaled in Geneva that it was ready to ship about three-quarters of its declared stockpile of 5-percent-enriched uranium to Russia for refinement to 19.7 percent purity, then to France for fabrication into fuel rods.
The material would be resistant to higher enrichment.
That would buy time for big power diplomats to negotiate farther-reaching measures, such as a freeze on Iranian enrichment growth and unfettered IAEA inspections.
Iran’s LEU stockpile has no apparent civilian use since Iran has no operating nuclear power plants, but is now enough to fuel one atomic bomb, if Tehran chose to enrich it to weapons-grade.
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