U.N. Nuclear Official: Iran Says It's Ready to Compromise on Atomic Program

Iran is ready to provide answers on past suspicious nuclear activities to the International Atomic Energy Agency within the next few months, the agency's head said Friday after meeting with the country's top nuclear negotiator.

But the Iranian official suggested the offer was conditional to an end of U.N. Security Council involvement in Iran's nuclear program. The council has already imposed two sets of sanctions on the Islamic republic over the past half year for its refusal to freeze uranium enrichment and is poised to impose new penalties.

Such terms would likely be unacceptable to the five permanent council members plus Germany — the six powers that have spearheaded the effort to pressure Iran to give up its enrichment ambitions.

The Security Council has demanded that Iran provide answers to the IAEA, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, on activities that could be linked to a weapons program. But it has also called on Iran to freeze enrichment and stop building a heavy water reactor that will produce plutonium — like enriched uranium a material that could provide the fissile core of nuclear warheads.

With the main emphasis on blunting the possible nuclear threat from Iran by depriving it of technologies that could be used for such weapons, any concession that falls short of suspending both enrichment and construction of the reactor was unlikely to be far reaching enough.

Still, the timing of the offer by Ali Larijani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, appeared to be designed to exploit possible cracks among the six world powers. Russia and China are opposed to quick council moves to new sanctions, while diplomats say Germany in the past has appeared ready to accept a compromise that falls short of a full enrichment freeze.

The Iranian proposal, to IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei, came on the eve of a new round of talks between Larijani and Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief and built on a recent offer by Larijani to provide answers to questions sought by the IAEA in its four-year Iran probe.

"I hope that in the next few weeks we should be able to start planning a plan of action which I hope that we should be able to conclude within two months," ElBaradei told reporters at his Vienna headquarters. "This would be key to our ability to provide assurances about ... (the nature of) Iran's nuclear program."

But Larijani suggested the offer was conditional on reaching a "political understanding with Mr. Solana" — apparent shorthand for a deal in which the Security Council drops or at least suspends its involvement in Iran's nuclear file.

Earlier Friday, Iran's Interior Ministry denied a report quoting the minister as saying Iran has produced 220 pounds of enriched uranium, saying he never mentioned specific numbers and spoke only about the country's nuclear achievements.

The semiofficial ISNA news agency reported that the minister, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, also said Iran now has 3,000 centrifuges actively enriching uranium.

The Interior Ministry later issued a statement denying Pourmohammadi made the comments reported by ISNA. The minister "only spoke about Iran's nuclear achievements and he did not mention an amount of enriched uranium and the number of installed centrifuges," said the statement, carried on the Web site of the state broadcasting company. "The recently published report is denied."

ISNA quoted Pourmohammadi as saying "right now, 3,000 of the (centrifuge) machines have been operational and more than 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of enriched uranium has been ready and stored." ISNA is not considered an official agency, but the Iranian government sometimes uses it to leak information on sensitive issues.

The ministry gave no figures for the amount of enriched uranium or the number of working centrifuges. The ministry has no direct role in Iran's disputed nuclear program, and Iranian nuclear officials were not available Friday to comment on the figures given in the ISNA report.