Iran said Sunday it was ready to resume nuclear research within 24 hours, ignoring EU warnings the move would jeopardize any resumption of wider talks and overshadowing Russian efforts to broker a way out of the crisis.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gives the nuclear program a green light
Washington has warned that any resumption of research into the nuclear fuel cycle might spur it to seek Iran's referral to the UN Security Council for enforcement action.
The foreign ministry called on the UN nuclear watchdog to have its inspectors ready on Monday to witness the removal of the seals placed on Iran's research facilities after it voluntarily suspended research into the nuclear fuel cycle more than two years ago.
"We have announced that we are ready to start work as early as tomorrow and it's now down to the (International Atomic Energy) Agency to be ready too," ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said Sunday.
"We are in close contact with the agency, IAEA inspectors came out recently," Asefi told reporters.
The IAEA is awaiting further information before making its next move.
On Saturday, IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said the watchdog had received a first letter from Iran about its intentions but added that its inspectors needed more information before being able to proceed.
"It did not satisfy our information requirements, we still need information in more details," she said, adding that the watchdog was expecting a further letter from the Iranians.
As Iran's suspension of nuclear research was voluntary, the presence of IAEA inspectors for the resumption is not a requirement under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a diplomat close to the watchdog acknowledged.
But Iran's top security body, which first announced the research resumption last Tuesday, has made clear it wants to work with the watchdog.
"Our research activities will be under the supervision of the agency's cameras," its spokesman Hossein Entezami told AFP Saturday.
Iran splits hairs over research and enrichment
Iran has been trying to make a distinction between research into the nuclear fuel cycle and actual production of enriched uranium, which can be used as fuel in civil reactors or, in highly enriched form, as the explosive core of an atom bomb.
But Washington, which suspects Tehran of using its civil nuclear program as a cover for weapons development, warned it would regard any resumption of research as proof that Iran was not serious about negotiations to allay Western concerns.
Condoleezza Rice says the US sees the move as an unwillingness to make diplomacy work.
"They shouldn't do it because it would really be a sign that they are not prepared to actually make diplomacy work," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday.
She warned that a draft resolution had already been prepared to put before the Security Council in the event that the avenues for negotiation had been exhausted.
EU fears time for talk is nearing its end
The European Union, which has been trying to reopen talks suspended in August after Iran rejected an initial set of incentives to abandon enrichment, voiced dismay at the imminent resumption of research.
"The EU regrets that Iran has chosen to announce this unilateral move at a moment when international confidence in the peaceful nature of its program is far from restored," a statement said Saturday.
The EU has urged Iran not to begin research again.
"It finds it surprising and unreasonable that Iran proposes to do this at a moment when ... Britain, France and Germany with the EU were exploring with Iran the possibility of a return to negotiations."
Russia working to broker a deal with EU, US blessing
With backing from both the European Union and the United States, Russia had been canvassing a compromise under which Iran could carry out its own uranium enrichment but on Russian soil.
A high level delegation has been in Tehran since Friday evening to discuss the proposals and Asefi said the talks were going well. "The negotiating process is positive and has the potential to produce effective proposals," he said Sunday.
His assessment was a sharp improvement on comments he made Tuesday in which he complained of "ambiguities" in the plan. "It's not a structured proposal it is still an idea, we have to discuss it," he had said then.
Iran wants any deal to recognize its right under the NPT to conduct enrichment on its own territory.