New York – Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Thursday that Iran would be willing to halt production of enriched uranium that is close to weapons grade if the United States sells Iran fuel for a reactor that produces medical isotopes.
But Ahmadinejad said Iran would not stop making low enriched uranium and would not give up its nuclear stockpiles, making it unlikely that Washington will embrace his proposal.
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran has more than 4,500 kilogrammes of uranium enriched to 3.5 percent U-235 – which is suitable to power nuclear reactors for electricity – and more 70 kilogrammes of uranium enriched to 20 percent of the rare isotope. Weapons grade uranium is enriched to 90 percent U-235, but getting there from 20 percent is much easier than starting from scratch.
The Iranian president has suggested in several recent interviews that Iran would stop making 20 percent uranium if the United States sold Iran fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, an aging facility provided by the United States when the shah ruled Iran. Argentina provided the last batch of fuel for the plant in the 1990s but that is now running out. It is not clear that Iran has the expertise to make the necessary fuel rods and assemblies.
Speaking to about a dozen senior U.S. editors and reporters Thursday on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, Ahmadinejad said Iran had only begun to enrich to 20 percent because “some of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) members set up preconditions” for providing fuel. He was referring to a U.S.-backed offer in 2009 for Iran to send out most of its stockpile of 3.5 percent uranium for further processing by Russia and France. At the time, Iran had no uranium enriched to 20 percent.
Iran agreed to the swap, then reneged after the proposal was harshly criticised by Ahmadinejad's political rivals. It later re-embraced the idea after mediation by Brazil and Turkey, but by then, Iran had amassed a larger quantity of enriched uranium and begun enriching to 20 percent and the U.S. and its allies were no longer interested in the original deal.
David Albright, president and founder of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington research organisation, told IPS that the new offer was worth pursuing to limit Iran's production of more highly enriched uranium.
“Take it as a small proposal, sell two years of fuel and cap enrichment at five percent,” Albright said. “If you can curtail that, you are better off.”
Sanctions would remain in place against Iran so long as it does not abide by repeated U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding that it suspend uranium enrichment, he said. But the sense of urgency about Iran's nuclear programme would dissipate and allow more time for diplomacy.
Ahmadinejad, Albright noted, is under pressure to meet the needs of Iranian cancer patients who require the radioactive isotopes for treatment.
Ahmadinejad said Thursday that “over 800,000 people in Iran are dependent on this medicine”.
He said the international community should not worry about Iran's remaining stockpiles because it is “under the monitoring and control of the IAEA”.
However, Iran has aroused concerns because it has hidden aspects of its programme and refuses to give the IAEA access to scientists suspected of studying how to make a nuclear warhead.
There is also the question of whether Ahmadinejad can deliver on any promises – particularly on so sensitive a topic — given his weakened political position back home.
Tensions with the country's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have flared in recent months and there have been increasingly harsh attacks on Ahmadinejad and his chief aide, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, in the state-controlled Iranian press.
The president's entourage has been accused of crimes ranging from sorcery to corruption. The most serious charges came last week when a businessman close to Mashaei was arrested on charges of obtaining fraudulent letters of credit worth 2.8 billion dollars to buy shares in a state-owned steel factory that is being privatised.
Asked about domestic tensions Thursday, Ahmadinejad, as is his wont, replied with a question of his own about the United States.
“Is there a power struggle in America?” he asked, referring to the conflict between the Congress and the White House over taxes and spending.
Ahmadinejad also deflected questions on human rights, claiming he had no control over the actions of the judiciary.
He suggested that the hundreds of Iranian political prisoners still in jail following his disputed 2009 re-election were there for attacking public property, not for expressing their views. He also claimed that only 38 people died during those disturbances and that many of them were security forces; human rights groups believe more than 100 were killed and that most of them were unarmed demonstrators.
Among his most controversial comments, Ahmadinejad condemned homosexualty as “an ugly deed… shameful… one of the ugliest behaviours in our society (that is) against the divine teachings of every faith.”
He made the remark in reply to a question about whether he still believed – as he told an audience at Columbia University in 2007 — that there were no homosexuals in his country.
The Iranian president also insisted, despite evidence to the contrary, that the Iranian economy is prospering. “The purchasing power of the Iranian population is steadily increasing,” he said.
Earlier this year, his government phased out subsidies on consumer staples in favour of cash payments to Iranians. But many report sticker shock when they see electricity bills and factories are laying off workers because they cannot afford the new prices. Iran's chief auditor said recently that the programme was unsustainable because the government is paying out more in cash payments than it is getting from selling unsubsidised energy and other goods.
In other comments sure to irritate the U.S. and Europeans, Ahmadinejad asserted that the political awakenings of the Middle East would soon reach Europe and the United States.
“The time of the oppressor is over,” he said with no obvious sense of irony about Iran's own actions. “We are in serious need of behaviour modification.”
Earlier Thursday, U.S. and European diplomats at the U.N. General Assembly walked out during his speech in which he accused the United States of killing Osama bin Laden so that he could not testify about the true culprits behind the Sep. 11, 2011 terrorist attacks. Ahmadinejad provoked a similar walkout last year when he accused the United States of being behind the attacks to have a pretext to invade Muslim countries.