Amid fresh international concerns, Iran hints at resuming nuclear fuel work
TEHRAN (AFP) Feb 14, 2004
Iran signaled Saturday it might resume its controversial effort to produce nuclear fuel, with its foreign minister saying Tehran was even ready to sell its product on the world market.

"As a country that is capable of producing nuclear fuel, the Islamic Republic of Iran is ready to sell it on the international market," Kamal Kharazi was quoted as saying by the state news agency IRNA.

"The Iranian people are not ready to compromise on their national interests. No government can relinquish an issue that has gained it national pride, but we are ready to cooperate internationally," he added.

Iran, which denies US allegations it is using an atomic energy programme as a cover to develop nuclear weapons, last year pledged to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it would temporarily cease enriching uranium.

That promise, which officials here have warned could expire at a moment of their own choosing, was part of a confidence-building package negotiated with Britain, France and Germany.

Iran also agreed to allow IAEA inspectors to conduct tougher probes of its nuclear programme after admitting to a string of violations of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Although the NPT permits the enriching of uranium for peaceful purposes, Iran has been under pressure to halt its work on such technology given concerns expressed by the United States and others over its ambitions.

They see a longer-term risk that, once having mastered the full fuel cycle, Iran could be just months away from producing weapons-grade material.

However, the state of Iran's effort to produce its own nuclear fuel, let alone export it, had been considered limited given the country's effort to acquire such fuel from Russia. Iran only announced in early 2003 that it was beginning to mine its own uranium.

Kharazi's comments, which also included a new denial that Tehran was seeking nuclear weapons, come amid a fresh storm surrounding his country's nuclear programme.

Earlier this week, diplomats at the Vienna-based IAEA said nuclear weapons inspectors in Iran had found blueprints for an advanced centrifuge -- used to enrich uranium both for nuclear reactors and for atomic bombs -- that Tehran had failed to declare.

In Berlin Thursday, US Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton said: "The response is clear. There's no doubt that Iran continues a nuclear programme."

But the diplomats in Vienna said the discovery was not a "smoking gun" that the UN watchdog could use to take Iran before the UN Security Council, where it could face sanctions.

Kharazi's assertions also come at a time when Iran is having problems acquiring nuclear fuel from Russia, which is withholding supplies for a nuclear plant it is helping build in the southern Iranian city of Bushehr.

Russian Atomic Energy Minister Alexander Rumyantsev said Thursday Tehran and Moscow still cannot agree on terms for a contract that would launch the Islamic state's first nuclear reactor.

The disagreement was over price and Russian demands that spent fuel be returned. Rumyantsev postponed a visit to Iran during which he had planned to sign the agreement over the return of Russian fuel.

The IAEA's board of governors is to meet March 8 to review the situation in Iran.