Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaking at the United Nations General Assembly.
Iran has again offered to halt its enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, which the United States has identified as its highest priority in the nuclear talks, in return for easing sanctions against Iran, according to Iran's permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Ali Asghar Soltanieh, who has conducted Iran's negotiations with the IAEA in Tehran and Vienna, revealed in an interview with IPS that Iran had made the offer at the meeting between EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton and Iran's leading nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili in Istanbul Sept. 19.
"We are prepared to suspend enrichment to 20 percent, provided we find a reciprocal step compatible with it," Soltanieh said, adding, "We said this in Istanbul."
Soltanieh is the first Iranian official to go on record as saying Iran has proposed a deal that would end its 20-percent enrichment entirely, although it had been reported previously. "If we do that," Soltanieh said, "there shouldn't be sanctions."
Iran's position in the two rounds of negotiations with the P5+1 -- China, France, Germany, Russia, Britain, the United States and Germany -- earlier this year was reported to have been that a significant easing of sanctions must be part of the bargain.
The United States and its allies in the P5+1 ruled out such a deal in the two rounds of negotiations in Istanbul and in Baghdad in May and June, demanding that Iran not only halt its enrichment to 20 percent but ship its entire stockpile of uranium enriched to that level out of the country and close down the Fordow enrichment facility entirely.
Even if Iran agreed to those far-reaching concessions the P5+1 nations offered no relief from sanctions.
Soltanieh repeated the past Iranian rejection of any deal involving the closure of Fordow. "It's impossible if they expect us to close Fordow," Soltanieh said.
The U.S. justification for the demand for the closure of Fordow has been that it has been used for enriching uranium to the 20-percent level, which makes it much easier for Iran to continue enrichment to weapons-grade levels.
But Soltanieh pointed to the conversion of half the stockpile to fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor, which was documented in the Aug. 30 IAEA report. "The most important thing in the (IAEA) report," Soltanieh said, was "a great percentage of 20-percent enriched uranium already converted to powder for the Tehran Research Reactor."
That conversion to powder for fuel plates makes the uranium unavailable for reconversion to a form that could be enriched to weapons grade level.
Soltanieh suggested that the Iranian demonstration of the technical capability for such conversion, which apparently took the United States and other P5+1 governments by surprise, has rendered irrelevant the P5+1 demand to ship the entire stockpile of 20-percent enriched uranium out of the country.
"This capacity shows that we don't need fuel from other countries," said Soltanieh.
Iran began enriching uranium to 20 percent in 2010 after the United States made a virtually non-negotiable offer in 2009 to provide fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor in return for Iran's shipping three-fourths of its low-enriched uranium stockpile out of the country and waiting for two years for the fuel plates.
The P5+1 demand for closure of the Fordow enrichment plant was also apparently based on the premise the facility was built exclusively for 20-percent enrichment. But Iran has officially informed the IAEA that it is for both enrichment to 20 percent and enrichment to 3.5 percent.
The 1,444 centrifuges installed at Fordow between March and August -- but not connected to pipes, according to the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security -- could be used for either 20-percent enrichment or 3.5-percent enrichment, giving Iran additional leverage in future negotiations.