TEHRAN, Iran – Iran has resumed small-scale enrichment of uranium, a senior Iranian nuclear negotiator said Tuesday — a defiant declaration in the face of global opposition to Iran's atomic program.
The resumption still leaves Iran a long way from reaching the stage the world fears most: large-scale enrichment of uranium — a process that can produce fuel for an atomic bomb.
Javad Vaeidi, deputy secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, in announcing the small-scale enrichment, also told reporters that Iran would resume negotiations with Moscow on Feb. 20 over its plan to enrich Iranian uranium on Russian soil — a proposal designed to allay fears that Iran will build nuclear weapons.
"The talks with Russia remain valid," Vaeidi said, adding that an Iranian delegation would go to Moscow.
The negotiations with Russia had been due to resume Thursday, but Iran said Monday they were postponed indefinitely.
Vaeidi gave no indication whether Iran was looking more favorably at the plan now that international pressure over its nuclear program was increasing. He said enrichment of uranium resumed last week at Natanz, the country's main enrichment plant, but that Iran had not resumed large-scale enrichment, as required for producing fuel for nuclear reactors.
In Israel, Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Knesset's defense and foreign affairs committee, said Tuesday's announcement made it clear that "time is running out."
"If the Iranians will not be blocked, in due course they will obtain a nuclear weapon," he told The Associated Press. "This will be a devastating threat not only to Israel and the Middle East but also to Europe and the United States."
Later Tuesday, Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh said resumption of uranium enrichment work was very limited.
"It can't be used even at semi-industrial level. It's only at the laboratory stage for analyzing research activities. This sort of enrichment cannot be used (for producing nuclear fuel)," he said.
The world has long sought to stop Iran from enriching uranium, fearing that the process would bring it to the threshold of possessing nuclear bombs. On Feb. 4, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported Iran to the U.N. Security Council and called on its government to suspend all enrichment-related activities.
Instead, Iran suspended certain aspects of its co-operation with the IAEA.
"They're continuing to choose defiance and confrontation over cooperation and diplomacy," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Monday of Iran's decision to resume enrichment.
Iran insists that as a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which provides for peaceful nuclear development, it is entitled to enrich uranium for nuclear reactors. It has threatened to withdraw from the treaty if it was not allowed to exercise that right.
Vaeidi nonetheless indicated Iran was still open to negotiation.
"We are still prepared to find a formula to clarify the ambiguity in talks with our partners. At the same time, we will pursue our rights," he said.
Mohammad Saeedi, deputy head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said Tuesday that Iran has stopped allowing short notice inspections of its facilities by IAEA inspectors.
He said on state television that some IAEA cameras need to be removed from Iranian nuclear facilities and that Iran was "taking the preparatory measures to do that."
Iran maintains its nuclear program is designed solely to generate electricity, but the United States and Israel claim the program is a cover for producing an atomic bomb.
Abdullah Gul, the foreign minister of Turkey, which borders Iran, urged its neighbor to be transparent about its nuclear program.
"Nuclear energy is the right of everyone, including Iran. But it requires the responsibility of being transparent," Gul said.
And the European Union, whose presidency is now held by Austria, reiterated that Tehran's nuclear ambitions and shaky human rights record were making normal relations with the EU impossible.
"The history of Iran's (nuclear energy) program and the many unanswered questions have raised serious doubts as to the exclusively peaceful nature of this program," Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik said in a telephone conversation with her Iranian counterpart.
In a visit Tuesday to Venezuela, Iranian parliament speaker Gholam Ali Haddad Adel denounced the U.S. and other nuclear powers for possessing "thousands of nuclear warheads ... (used for) threatening other non-nuclear countries." Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been a vocal opponent of the Bush administration and, in a speech last week, accused the United States of planning to invade Iran.
"Iran and the Mideast and Venezuela and Latin America can act as two convergent axes to neutralize the plans of arrogant world (powers)," Haddad Adel told Venezuela's National Assembly.