TEHRAN, Iran, (AP) – Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Thursday that Tehran will not give up its nuclear program, but noted that the West and Iran are now cooperating — remarks that appear to reinforce Iran’s support for the general outline of a U.N.-drafted nuclear deal.
The speech by Iran’s president came on the same day Iran has promised to deliver its decision on the U.N. pact, which seeks to ease Western worries about Tehran’s ability to produce a nuclear warhead.
Ahmadinejad’s speech suggested that Iran will stick by earlier comments that support the framework of the deal, but demand some changes. A key point is how quickly Iran is willing to send its stockpile of low-enriched uranium outside the country for further processing.
Ahmadinejad said the West has moved “from confrontation to interaction” with Iran over its uranium enrichment program, which he called an “inalienable right of the Iranian nation.”
“Today we reached a very important point,” Ahmadinejad said, speaking at a rally in the northeastern city of Mashhad. “Ground has been paved for nuclear cooperation” and Tehran is ready to now work on nuclear fuel supplies and technical know-how with the U.N. nuclear watchdog, Ahmadinejad added.
But he insisted his government “will not retreat even an iota” over the nation’s right to pursue a nuclear program — which the West fears masks a nuclear arms ambition.
Iran denies the charge and says the uranium enrichment program is exclusively for peaceful purposes, to make fuel.
Iran has promised to reveal on Thursday whether it accepts the U.N. plan, hammered out with world powers last week in Vienna, to ship out 70 percent of its enriched uranium to Russia for further enrichment.
The Vienna-brokered plan requires Iran to send 2,420 pounds (1,100 kilograms) of low-enriched uranium — around 70 percent of its stockpile — to Russia in one batch by the end of the year. After further enrichment there, France would convert the uranium into fuel rods for return to Iran for use in a Tehran reactor that produces medical isotopes.
Western powers say it’s critical for Iran to send out 70 percent of its uranium store in one load to eliminate — at least temporarily — its options to make a nuclear weapon.
A significantly lower amount or gradual shipments by Iran could jeopardize a key part of the proposal, which was reached after talks last week that included the United States. About 2,205 pounds (1,000 kilograms) is the commonly accepted amount of low-enriched uranium needed to produce weapons-grade uranium for a single nuclear warhead.
Tehran signaled this week it wants significant changes in the U.N. deal and to be allowed either to buy the fuel for the Tehran reactor from abroad or to ship the material in small batches. That would not reduce fears about further enrichment to weapons-grade uranium because Iran would be able to quickly replace small amounts it sent out of the country with newly enriched material.
Ahmadinejad said the West had pushed for halting Iran’s nuclear program in the past but that now it is “ready for cooperation and participation on exchange of nuclear fuel and building power plants.” The U.N. Security Council has slapped three sets of sanctions against Iran after the country refused to halt the uranium enrichment.
Also Thursday, a team of U.N. nuclear inspectors returned to the agency’s headquarters in Vienna from a visit to a previously secret Iranian uranium enrichment site. It expressed satisfaction with the mission but details have not been revealed.
What the inspectors saw — and how freely they were allowed to work — will be key in deciding whether six world powers engaging Iran in efforts to reduce fears that it seeks to make nuclear weapons seek a new round of talks with Tehran.
The Fordo site is near the holy city of Qom. Iran revealed it was building it Sept. 21 in a confidential letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Just days later, the leaders of the U.S., Britain and France condemned Tehran for having kept it secret.
The West believes Iran revealed the site’s existence only because it had learned that the U.S. and its allies were about to make it public. Iran denies that.