TEHRAN, Iran – Iran rejected a European demand to stop building a heavy water nuclear reactor in return for a light-water reactor Sunday, hardening Iran's position on a key part of its nuclear facilities that critics claim is part of a weapons program.
Iran has given indications in the past that it will insist on keeping its heavy water nuclear reactor (search), but Sunday's announcement is its clearest statement yet of its nuclear plans. It underscored the unresolved differences between Iranian and European negotiators, who are continuing their talks over Iran's nuclear program even as the United States escalates its criticism of Iran.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi also said Iran plans to become a major nuclear fuel supplier in 15 years, part of a program that Iran says is for peaceful domestic energy purposes.
"We intend to turn into an important and a major player in the nuclear fuel supply market in the next 15 years because there will be (an) energy shortage in the future," Asefi said.
Separately, The Washington Post reported Sunday that the United States has been flying unmanned surveillance drones over Iran since last year to look for evidence of nuclear weapons programs and probe the country's air defenses.
Asefi rejected a proposal by European negotiators to stop building a 40 megawatt heavy water nuclear reactor near Arak, in central Iran, in return for a light-water reactor. Iran says it has gone a long way in developing the Arak facility.
"We welcome the European offer ... but this won't replace the heavy water research reactor at all. That will continue. We will pursue that," he said.
Iran's top leaders have been adamant in recent days that Iran won't scrap its nuclear program, suspected by Washington as a program to produce a nuclear bomb.
Asefi said Iran had long and intensive talks — "early steps forward" — with Europeans this week. He said Europe should step up efforts to show progress that justify the continuation of the negotiations.
"During the talks, we tried to make it open that the nuclear fuel cycle has economic justification and that we will continue our activities in this field," Asefi told reporters.
The plants in question can be used to enrich uranium (search), a critical part in nuclear programs. Uranium enriched to low grades is used for fuel in nuclear reactors, but further enrichment makes it suitable for atomic bombs.
Iran suspended uranium enrichment and all related activities in November, hoping to build trust and avoid U.N. Security Council sanctions. The International Atomic Energy Agency is monitoring the suspension.
Iran has said its suspension of uranium enrichment activities are voluntary and temporary. Europeans seek to persuade Iran to turn its temporary suspension of dual use nuclear activities into a permanent cessation.
Iranian officials have suggested that any acceptance of a permanent freeze of its nuclear activities would collapse the government since its program is a matter of national pride and prestige.
Under an agreement reached with the European Union (news - web sites), Iran will continue suspension of its enrichment activities during negotiations about European economic, political and technological aid. Iran has said it will decide in a matter of months whether to continue its suspension, which is monitored by U.N. nuclear inspectors.