Tehran (AFP) March 2, 2009
Iran on Monday again denied it is seeking to produce a nuclear bomb, after top US military commander Admiral Mike Mullen charged that it has enough fissile material to build such a weapon.
"All this talk is baseless," foreign ministry spokesman Hassan Ghashghavi said at his weekly news conference.
When asked if Iran had enough nuclear material to manufacture an atomic bomb Mullen had told CNN on Sunday: "We think they do, quite frankly," the first time a US official had made such an assessment.
The Pentagon rowed back on Mullen's comment on Monday, insisting that he had meant Iran had enough uranium which it could enrich to the very high level required for a bomb, not that it had already done so.
"When he answered the question about low-grade uranium, it sounded like he was talking about an enriched uranium capability," spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters adding that there was no difference of assessment between Mullen and Defence Secretary Robert Gates.
In a separate interview aired on NBC television on Sunday, Gates had said Iran was "not close to a weapon at this point."
The Iranian foreign ministry spokesman stressed that Tehran had no desire to develop a nuclear bomb but added that the safeguards overseen by the International Atomic Energy Agency meant that it could not do so even if it wanted to.
"Technically speaking there are IAEA cameras and the IAEA is testing the purity of Iranian material," he said.
"Therefore, how can it be possible that with this level of supervision, low enriched material can be turned into highly enriched?"
In a report last month, the IAEA said Iran now has 1,010 kilogrammes (2,227 pounds) of low-enriched uranium hexafluoride from its enrichment plant at Natanz.
For use in a bomb as opposed to a nuclear power station, the material would have to be enriched to a far higher level.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on her first visit to the Middle East as America's top diplomat, on Monday reiterated Washington's willingness to engage with Iran if it "unclenches its fist."
"As President (Barack) Obama says, we are willing to extend a hand if the other side unclenches its fist in order to have some process of engagement," she told a news conference after a donors' meeting on Gaza in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
"But it will only be done in close consultation with our friends," she added.
Clinton declined to comment on remarks attributed to her by a US official expressing doubt that Iran would respond to the US overtures.
Iran and Russia meanwhile pursued their preparations for the launch later this year of Iran's first nuclear power plant in the southern city of Bushehr.
Visiting Russian Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko held talks on Monday evening with the head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, state television reported on its website.
After their meeting, Shmatko said he hoped that "the ongoing operations related to the commissioning would be done successfully. I think our cooperation will remove any problem," he added.
Iran began testing the 1,000 megawatt Russian-built plant on Wednesday.
Moscow has repeatedly assured global powers that the plant will not be used for military ends. It is supplying the fuel for the plant and will ship the spent fuel back to Russia after use.
earlier related report
"We think they do, quite frankly," Mullen told CNN Sunday, when asked if Iran had enough nuclear material to manufacture an atomic bomb.
"And Iran having a nuclear weapon, I've believed for a long time, is a very, very bad outcome for the region and for the world," said Mullen, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Mullen's remarks came in the wake of a report by the UN nuclear watchdog that said Tehran had made major strides in its uranium enrichment work.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Tehran now has 1,010 kilograms (2,227 pounds) of low-enriched uranium hexafluoride (LEU) from its enrichment activities at a plant at Natanz.
That "is sufficient for a nuclear weapons breakout capability," according to David Albright, president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security and an expert on Iran's nuclear program.
A breakout capability is defined as securing enough low-enriched uranium, used for nuclear fuel, to turn into highly enriched uranium (HEU) needed for nuclear weapons.
While IAEA experts put the amount needed for an atomic bomb at about 1,700 kilograms (3,748 pounds) of LEU, some analysts believe that smaller quantities might be enough.
Iran denies its atomic work is designed to build a nuclear arsenal and says it wants to develop nuclear technology to generate electricity for a growing population.
Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, insisted that Natanz was not configured to produce HEU.
Round-the-clock camera surveillance, the presence of inspectors and the ability of UN inspectors to make unannounced inspections made it "practically impossible" for Iran to switch from making low-enriched to high-enriched uranium, he said.
"The world would know within a second."
The United States and its European allies have previously expressed concern that Iran could soon have sufficient enriched uranium to manufacture a nuclear weapon but Mullen's more definitive comments went a step further.
The White House declined to comment on Sunday.
But US Defense Secretary Robert Gates struck a more cautious note on Iran's nuclear project.
"I think that there has been a continuing focus on how do you get the Iranians to walk away from a nuclear weapons program? They're not close to a stockpile. They're not close to a weapon at this point.
"And so, there is some time," Gates told NBC's "Meet the Press."
He said diplomacy carried a greater chance of success now that oil prices had dropped, enhancing the effect of economic sanctions on Iran, which relies heavily on oil revenue.
"Our chances of being successful, it seems to me, are a lot better at 35 dollars or 40 dollars" than 140 dollars a barrel, the peak of oil prices last June, Gates said.
"Because there are economic costs to this program. They do have economic challenges at home."
Iran's first satellite launch and the announcement that it could start up its first nuclear power plant in Bushehr within months have heightened concerns in Western capitals.
European states are considering imposing new sanctions on individuals and institutions linked to Iran's nuclear efforts, diplomats in several capitals said Thursday.
At its spring meeting starting Monday, the IAEA's 35-member board of governors will take its first look at Iran's nuclear program since President Barack Obama took power and said the United States could engage in direct talks with Iran.
The IAEA's six year-old investigation into Iran's nuclear activities is deadlocked, with Tehran refusing to suspend uranium enrichment, despite repeated UN sanctions. It is also stonewalling questions on the possible military dimensions of past nuclear work.
In an interview with The Washington Post newspaper and Newsweek magazine published Saturday, Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu said that a nuclear-armed Iran "would cause a great threat not only to Israel's security but the stability of just about every Arab government in the Middle East."
"Many Arab governments would enter into a nuclear arms race, and this is something that is inimical to the interests of all those who seek peace and security," the Israeli leader warned.
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IAEA chief urges Iran to 'unblock' nuclear stalemate
Vienna (AFP) March 2, 2009
UN atomic watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei urged Iran on Monday to "unblock" a long-running nuclear standoff and expressed hope that a possible change in US policy towards Tehran may help break the deadlock.
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