The head of Iran's atomic agency said the Islamic Republic will not enrich uranium to a higher level if the West provides the fuel it needs for a research reactor in Tehran.
Iran is set to start enriching its stockpile of uranium to 20 percent on Tuesday, in a step sure to antagonize Western nations that fear the enrichment work could eventually yield material for a nuclear weapon.
France and the U.S. said Monday Iran's action left no choice but to push harder for a fourth set of U.N. Security Council sanctions to punish Iran's nuclear defiance. Russia, which has close ties to Iran and has opposed new sanctions, appeared to edge closer to Washington's position, saying the new enrichment plans show the suspicions about Iran's intentions are well-founded.
Ali Akbar Salehi, a vice president as well as the head of the country's nuclear program, said the further enrichment would be unnecessary if the West found a way to provide Iran with the needed fuel.
"Whenever they provide the fuel, we will halt production of 20 percent," he told state TV late Monday.
Iran has so far enriched uranium to a level of 3.5 percent, which is suitable for use in fueling nuclear power plants. The process is of concern to the West, however, because at higher levels — around 90 percent — the material can be used to make weapons.
The West fears that Iran's enrichment program is ultimately geared toward military purposes — a charge Iran denies.
On Tuesday, the spokesman of Iran's Foreign Ministry, Ramin Mehmanparast told reporters the higher enrichment will be done with the cooperation and supervision of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, adding that "if other countries or the agency could provide the fuel, our attitude can be different as well."
Mehmanparast said any plan by the West to impose new Security Council resolutions would not be helpful.
"If they attempt another resolution, they are making a mistake. It is not helpful in resolving the nuclear dispute between Iran and the West," he said. "They are completely wrong if they think our people will back down even a single step."
Salehi said Iran has been trying to buy the higher enriched fuel for its research reactor for the past several months, but the West made providing the fuel conditional on Iran's acceptance of a U.N.-drafted agreement to ship its uranium stockpile abroad first.
That plan would come with some safeguards, because the enriched fuel provided to Iran would be in a form that would be difficult to further process to make weapons.
Salehi said Iran would begin 20 percent enrichment on Tuesday by injecting gas into a cascade of centrifuge machines. Salehi said Iran needs some 1.5 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium a month for the Tehran research reactor, which produces medical isotopes.
Salehi said 164 centrifuge machines were ready in a laboratory in Iran's main enrichment facility in the city of Natanz to produce 3 to 5 kilograms of higher enriched uranium per month.
Salehi said inspectors from the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency are expected to be present when Iran begins the higher enrichment.
"The agency continues to have inspectors in Iran conducting normal safeguard operations," IAEA spokeswoman Gill Tudor said Tuesday when asked if they would be present.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates believed the United Nations should slap new sanctions on Iran in "weeks, not months."
Morrell said Gates believes a U.N. resolution would lay the legal groundwork countries need to impose sanctions independently and pressure Iran to abandon its nuclear program.
No new U.N. Security Council sanctions can be passed, however, without unanimous agreement from all members, including China, which has been reluctant to impose new punitive measures on Iran.
China called for more talks on Tuesday, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu, saying "I hope the relevant parties will step up efforts and push for progress in the dialogue and negotiations."
Russia, another Security Council member, has also been reluctant to back new sanctions.
The nation's security chief said on Tuesday, however, that Iran's decision to enrich uranium to higher levels has added to doubts about its nuclear program.
"Iran says it doesn't want to have nuclear weapons. But its actions, including its decision to enrich uranium to 20 percent, have raised doubts among other nations, and these doubts are quite well-founded," Nikolai Patrushev was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.
Iran says it needs the 20 percent enriched fuel for a research reactor producing radio isotopes to treat cancer and manufacture radiography materials. Iran says more than 850,000 people need the products for their illnesses.
Iran purchased 116 kilograms of the fuel in 1987 from Argentina, through the IAEA.
Before 1979 Islamic revolution when Iran and the U.S. had close ties, the U.S. provided fuel to the reactor in 1967.
The center also has an educational role in training Iranian researchers on nuclear issues.
Associated Press Writer Veronika Oleksyn contributed to this report from Vienna.
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