Iranian experts started clarification talks with the UN nuclear watchdog on Thursday, while Germany and other countries responded with concern to Tehran's intention to resume nuclear research.
IAEA Director General Mohamed El Baradei wants Iran to give up uranium enrichment
Experts from Iran and the UN nuclear watchdog met Thursday in Vienna to discuss Tehran's plans to resume atomic fuel research, an official from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said.
The talks with the IAEA follow a letter from Tehran on Monday announcing plans to resume research -- suspended two years ago -- for what Iran describes as a "program for peaceful nuclear energy."
The European Union and the United States fear Iran's civil nuclear program is a cover for developing a nuclear bomb. Tehran denies the accusation, insisting the program is designed solely to meet its electricity needs.
IAEA Director Mohamed El Baradei called earlier this week for "clarifications" on the letter, saying it was essential that Iran refrain from "all activities linked to uranium enrichment."
"Senior technical people are coming from Iran who would presumably help us sort this out," El Baradei said.
A meeting initially planned for Wednesday was postponed, but a senior IAEA official confirmed Thursday that talks were underway.
Iran's uranim conversion facility in Isfahan reprocesses uranium ore concentrate
"There are meetings planned over the next couple of days, focused on clarifying the letter and in particular what the resumption of (research and development) means," said the official, who asked not to be identified.
The IAEA wants to know whether Tehran is seeking to remove seals the UN atomic watchdog has placed on Iranian nuclear facilities.
In August 2005, the IAEA supervised the removal by Iran of the UN seal from its Isfahan plant, thus enabling it to resume conversion of uranium into gas.
This is a first step in the process of making enriched uranium, which can be used as fuel in civilian reactors as well as the explosive core in nuclear bombs.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad repeated Thursday that his country would not retreat from it nuclear program, echoing a statement by Ali Larijani, Iran's top official for nuclear issues, on Wednesday that resumption of nuclear research was "not negotiable."
Iranian President Ahmadinejad is known for his fiery speeches
"Those who have nuclear weapons and have used them in the worst way against people in the world, have no right to prevent nations from achieving peaceful nuclear energy," the ultra-conservative president told a cheering audience in the religious epicentre of Qom.
This sparked alarmed reactions from France and Germany, which are trying with Britain to wean Iran off its nuclear ambitions by offering economic and security incentives.
A point of no return?
Both Berlin and Paris warned that Iran's decision to resume atomic fuel research despite Western opposition could endanger the next round of talks on its controversial nuclear program with three EU nations, due to begin again in Austria on Jan. 18.
"We view the latest announcement from Iran that it will restart its research and development work with concern," foreign ministry spokesman Martin Jäger told a press conference on Wednesday.
The resumption of enrichment would be regarded by the West as a point of no return, triggering the implementation of a resolution referring Iran to the UN Security Council for violating the international nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
The Europeans and the United States are backing a compromise offer from Moscow to enrich Iranian uranium on Russian soil, thus giving Iran access to the nuclear fuel cycle while ensuring its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.
Iranian officials have criticized the proposal but not ruled it out entirely, and are scheduled to discuss it with Russian officials on Saturday.