Top Iranian politician hints uranium may be bargaining chip

In this file photo, Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani, speaks with media, during a press conference, in Tehran, Iran, Monday, Sept. 19, 2011.
AP Photo/Vahid Salemi

GENEVA Iran has more enriched uranium than it needs and plans to use that as a bargaining chip at nuclear talks in Geneva next week, Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani said Wednesday.

In an Associated Press interview, Larijani said the surplus uranium would be raised with Western powers in discussions over whether Iran will stop enriching uranium to 20 percent, a key concession sought in negotiations.

"Through the process of negotiations, yes, things can be said and they can discuss this matter," he said, on the sidelines of a meeting of the world organization of parliaments.

The 20-percent-enriched uranium is much closer to warhead-grade material than the level needed for energy-producing nuclear reactors, but Larijani says it needs the higher enrichment solely for energy, research and isotopes for medical treatments, not for nuclear weapons.

He said Iran produced the enriched uranium itself because the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency would not provide it.

"But we have some surplus, you know, the amount that we don't need. But over that we can have some discussions," he said.

Iran plans to negotiate over its nuclear program next week with the five permanent U.N. Security Council members - the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France - plus Germany, collectively known as the P5 +1.

The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that anonymous officials familiar with the negotiations say the Iranians are prepared to table an offer to limit the number of centrifuges operating at their nuclear facilities -- the machinery used to enrich uranium and make suitable for atomic weapons, as well as to stop producing 20 percent enriched uranium, and to agree to greater international oversight at . In return, they are expected to demand an easing of the crippling economic sanctions which have been placed on Iranian state institutions, banks, businesses and individuals.

The U.S. and its allies accuse Iran of using its civilian nuclear program as a cover to develop nuclear weapons, and the group known as the P5 + 1 want Tehran to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent, a grade that is only a technical step away from the level used to arm nuclear warheads. It then wants the 20-percent stockpile transferred out of the country.

The group also demands that Iran agree to shut down the bomb-resistant underground bunker known as Fordo, where Iran is enriching uranium to 20 percent, before discussing sanctions relief on Iranian oil and financial transactions.

Iran's nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi has not publicly specified what measures Tehran might take to ease Western concerns that its nuclear program could one day produce atomic weapons. The sanctions, which have imposed hardship on Iran's people, have done little to accomplish the aim of stopping Iran's expanding nuclear program.

President Barack Obama disclosed in an AP interview last Friday that U.S. intelligence agencies believe Iran continues to be a year or more away from building a nuclear weapon, in contrast to Israel's assessment that Tehran is much closer.

Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also have become the first U.S. and Iranian leaders to have direct contact in more than 30 years, which Larijani acknowledged has upset some hard-liners in Iran.

"They are a little bit pessimistic about it, suspicious. So, they have their own sway, and they put pressure, but we do support Mr. Rouhani. And God willing, he will have the parliament's support (in the nuclear talks)," Larijani said.

Larijani, formerly Iran's former top nuclear negotiator, said he believes there will be no progress next week unless the U.S. offers to curtail some of the West's crippling economic sanctions.

He said "it is too soon to pass any judgment" on whether U.S.-Iranian diplomatic ties might be restored. Switzerland now represents U.S. diplomatic interests in Iran.

The countries broke ties after the 1979 Islamic Revolution when mobs stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. A total of 52 hostages were held for 444 days.

At a news conference Wednesday in Geneva, Larijani told reporters the upcoming nuclear negotiation "mostly concerns building confidence rather than a commercial give-and-take." They are a continuation of talks that began in 2003 between Iran and Britain, France and Germany, and later expanded to include the United States, Russia and China, but have failed so far to achieve any substantive progress.

"My feeling is that Iran wants to see a resolution to the matter through political negotiations," he said. "I look at the upcoming negotiations positively."