VIENNA (Reuters) - Iran launched a fresh round of uranium enrichment this week just as world powers offered it incentives to halt nuclear fuel work with the potential to produce atomic bombs, a U.N. watchdog said on Thursday.
Iran has said it will seriously consider Tuesday's overture but a watchdog report made clear Tehran was pushing ahead anyway with efforts to expand a fledgling enrichment programme and increase its bargaining clout in any future negotiations.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said threats, an allusion to possible sanctions if Iran spurns the sweeteners, would not work in talks to settle the dispute, but that Iran was ready to clear up misunderstandings with the rest of the world.
He said Iran was not willing to abandon its nuclear rights, Iran's usual euphemism for uranium enrichment. But some analysts said his speech reflected a greater readiness for talks.
A U.S. official said Washington did not deem Ahmadinejad's comments a formal response to the package.
"They have a couple of times now talked about an interest in negotiations but still have not made a commitment to the conditions for negotiations," the official said.
The new International Atomic Energy Agency report said Iran had resumed feeding UF6 gas, feedstock for nuclear fuel, into a pilot cascade of 164 centrifuge enrichment machines at Natanz on Tuesday after a five-week pause of test runs without UF6.
That was the day European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana visited Tehran to hand over the batch of trade, technological and security incentives for Iran to mothball nuclear fuel production.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton said in London that if the IAEA report was accurate it was "very disturbing" as it showed Iran was continuing to make progress in uranium enrichment.
"The reason we feel a sense of urgency about what Iran is doing is that each day that goes by allows them to perfect to a further extent all of the various aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle," he told reporters.
The IAEA report, emailed to the 35 states on the IAEA's governing board before a meeting next week, also said Iran had continued with installation of two more 164-centrifuge networks begun in April despite a U.N. Security Council resolution calling on it to stop.
Iran says it wants only to produce low-enriched uranium to generate electricity. But the West suspects Iran, the world's fourth-biggest oil producer, of seeking to enrich uranium to the high level needed for atomic bomb cores.
Iran aims to have 3,000 centrifuges on line by early 2007, which would provide enough capacity to produce high-grade fuel for one bomb within a year if the cascades ran non-stop.
In April, Iran appeared to defeat a Western bid to deny it enrichment technology when, for the first time, it purified a small amount of uranium at Natanz for use as power plant fuel.
A Western intelligence official told Reuters hours before the IAEA report that Iran had stopped feeding gas into its pilot cascade later in April because of technical glitches, but then resolved them, allowing enrichment work to resume.
"This underlines the fact that the temporary halt was technical in nature. It's a continuation of Iranian policy to profit from all worlds, dialogue to buy time while continuing to strive for an atomic bomb," the official said.
After Solana's visit, Iranian chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani said the package contained some positive points but also "ambiguities" that should be excised via negotiations.
Solana said on Thursday he was now "more optimistic than pessimistic" about reaching an agreement with Iran.
"I think they understood the content of the proposal well and I hope they will react soon," he said in Paris.
Although Iran has said it will not give up enrichment, Iranian officials recently hinted Tehran might be willing to negotiate over plans for "industrial-scale" fuel production.
The United States says all enrichment must stop. But Western diplomats said the package would allow Iran to resume such work eventually after a verifiable moratorium, likely to last years.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States still hoped for a positive Iranian response to the offer. He would not be drawn on the IAEA finding that Tehran had swung into a new phase of enrichment.
Iran has said it will not reply "hastily" to the package.
(Additional reporting by Carol Giacomo in Washington, Edmund Blair in Tehran, Ingrid Melander in Brussels, Elizabeth Pineau in Paris, Madeline Chambers and Adrian Croft in London)
Did you find this article insightful?