Iran will not back down on resuming nuclear activities opposed by the West but may wait for a few weeks if talks with European powers go well, chief negotiator Hassan Rohani said on Wednesday.
Such a delay could postpone a growing crisis with the European Union and the United States over Tehran’s nuclear plans until after an Iranian presidential election on June 17, although Rohani said there was no link between the two.
In an interview with Reuters, Rohani repeatedly said that Iran would not change its mind about restarting a plant in the city of Isfahan that converts raw uranium into a gas that can be used to feed nuclear power plants or make atomic bombs.
He added, however, that such a step would not lead automatically to the next and most critical stage of the nuclear fuel process — the enrichment of uranium.
“The decision for a resumption of activities in Isfahan has been made and it is irreversible,” Rohani said.
Timing, inspections 'negotiable'
He said the only area for discussion at talks with the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany in Paris set for May 23 were the timing of a resumption and the conditions, including arrangements for international inspections.
“There are no other issues negotiable,” Rohani said. While Iran was ready to be flexible on timing, any delay would be brief.
“If we feel that the Europeans are determined to exercise the agreements, and also we feel that they do not want to waste time, we would have no problem to delay resumption of activities in the Isfahan facility for some weeks.”
Reacting to Rohani’s remarks, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Iran should not posture but “rather try to reassure the international community that has been more and more concerned about its activities.”
The three European Union powers warned Iran last week that they would break off negotiations and join the United States in seeking U.N. Security Council action against Tehran if it reversed its freeze on atomic work.
Rohani agreed to suspend such activities last November to allow for talks with the EU on a long-term arrangement.
Frustrated with the slow pace of talks, Iran said last week it would resume uranium conversion at Isfahan but agreed to hold off after the EU coupled its threat with the offer of the ministerial meeting next week.
“We have now reached a clear point. We believe therefore that it is time for Europe to make its decision and to implement that decision” Rohani said.
“A decision on Isfahan is simple. This is not a sensitive part of the process and should not affect continuation of negotiations, if Europe has the will to seek and agree on a solution.”
Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful power generation but Washington says the Islamic Republic is using that as a cover to develop nuclear weapons.
Rohani said no decision had been made to resume work on a plant in the central town of Natanz, where uranium gas would be enriched in centrifuges, the most critical stage of creating fuel for power generation or nuclear warheads.
“This by itself is a clear indication of Iran’s willingness to sustain the negotiations with Europe,” he said. The goal was a “high-level relationship” spanning not only nuclear issues but also economic and security cooperation, including on Iraq.
Election, IAEA timing
Iran holds its presidential election on June 17. The frontrunner, former President Ali Akbar Rasfanjani, is seen in the West as a pragmatist who is keen to ease tensions.
Rohani, a mid-ranking cleric who was put in charge of nuclear negotiations in late 2003, said Iran’s program was a matter of “national will” adding: “There is no link between this issue and the presidential elections.”
The governing board of the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency will begin discussing its latest progress report on its two-year investigation of Iran on June 13, four days before the election.
Keeping the suspension of nuclear activity in place at least until the election would ensure Tehran a relatively positive report from the IAEA and undermine any U.S. drive to refer it to the Security Council, diplomats said.
The United States would then have to wait until the IAEA board meets again in September to take any action.
Rohani said Iran wanted nuclear technology to meet its energy needs and not to build bombs.
“Japan and Germany are very good examples in the world. They have economic power and political power” but not nuclear arms, Rohani said.
“The North Koreans have nuclear weapons but has that given them any negotiating power to deal with the world?”