Iran, under pressure from the West to come clean about its nuclear program, seemed to warm Saturday to a U.N. proposal while at the same time vowing to aggressively pursue the nuclear technology it says it needs to power the country.
Foreign minister Manochehr Mottaki expressed defiance in the face of threatened sanctions against the Islamic nation, and he suggested that if diplomatic talks didn't progress, Iran was prepared to "abandon the whole thing."
"We need 10 to 15 nuclear plants to generate electricity in our country," Mottaki said. Russia is currently helping Iran build its first nuclear plant.
But Mottaki, speaking to reporters at a regional security conference in Bahrain, also said Iran is ready to exchange the bulk of its stockpile of enriched uranium for nuclear fuel rods, as proposed by the U.N. — though according to its own mechanisms and timetable.
Mottaki said Iran agreed with a U.N. deal proposed in October in which up to 2,600 pounds of its uranium would be exchanged for fuel rods to power its research reactor.
"We accepted the proposal in principle," he said through a translator. "We suggested in the first phase we give you 400 kilograms of 3.5 percent enriched uranium and you give us the equivalent in 20 percent uranium."
Iran has about 3,300 pounds of low-enriched uranium and needs to refine to 20 percent to operate a research reactor that produces medical isotopes.
The White House expressed unhappiness at Iran's announcement, particularly its proposal of exchanging the material in batches. A senior Obama administration official told the Associated Press such a proposal is inconsistent with the U.N. plan.
The U.S. and its allies fear that if Iran continues to develop its uranium-enriching process, it could eventually develop material for a nuclear weapon, a charge Tehran denies.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Friday that sanctions are coming "soon" if Iran continues its current program, and he reiterated that all options, including military action, must stay on the table. The Obama administration is looking to press for new United Nations sanctions in early January.
"I think that you are going to see some significant additional sanctions imposed by the international community," Gates said, adding that "any military action would only buy some time, maybe two or three years."
The International Atomic Energy Agency proposed in October that Iran ship its uranium out of the country to be further refined by France and Russia and turned into fuel rods, which cannot be turned into weapons.
Iran has been giving mixed signals over the deal, including several statements from lawmakers rejecting it outright.
Mottaki maintained, however, that a clear answer had been given involving the simultaneous exchange of uranium for fuel in stages.
"We gave a clear answer and we responded and our answer was we accepted in principle but there were differences in the mechanism," he said, suggesting the exchange take place on Iran's Kish island, in the Persian Gulf.