TEHRAN, Iran – Iran is weighing a more confrontational strategy at possible renewed nuclear talks with world powers, threatening to boost levels of uranium enrichment unless the West makes clear concessions to ease sanctions.
Such a gambit — outlined by senior Iranian officials in interviews this week — could push Iran's nuclear program far closer to the "red line" set by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for possible military options.
But it also suggests that economic pressures and diplomacy have pushed Iran to the point of considering an ultimatum-style end game in efforts to seek relief from the U.S. and European sanctions, which have targeted Iran's vital oil exports and its ability to use international banking networks.
Mansour Haghighatpour, deputy head of Iran's influential National Security Committee in parliament, told The Associated Press that the hardline negotiating formula under consideration would put Western negotiators on notice that failure to ease sanctions could open the way for uranium enrichment above 20 percent — currently the highest level acknowledged by the Islamic Republic.
That would mark a dramatic move toward the threshold for warhead-grade material at about 90 percent and certainly bring a sharp escalation in calls for military action from Israel and others in the West. Iran denies it seeks nuclear weapons, but there have been suggestions it could ramp up uranium enrichment for future projects such as nuclear-powered submarines.
"The West now has a chance to strike a deal with Iran," Haghighatpour told the AP in an interview. "Perhaps we may need to produce nuclear fuel for large commercial vessels that need 60 percent purity."
There are no immediate plans to resume nuclear talks between Iran and a six-nation group including both Tehran's foes and allies: the permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany. Full-scale negotiations have been on hold since the last round ended in stalemate in June.
At the time, the West stuck to its major demands: Iran must stop enriching uranium to 20 percent purity, shut down its underground Fordo enrichment site and ship its 20 percent stockpile out of the country. In return, Iran was offered civilian plane spare parts and 20 percent-enriched nuclear fuel for its medical research reactor in Tehran.
But there was no move to ease sanctions — which have grown even tighter since the last negotiating session.
To Iran, the proposed package was a nonstarter. Many compared it to swapping diamonds in return for peanuts.
So far, Iran has publicly repeated its positions that it was willing to bargain over 20 percent enrichment as part of step-by-step moves to lift sanctions. Iran also wants an international pledge that it has the "right" to make its own nuclear fuel — at least at lower levels for its energy-producing reactor.
The tougher line outlined by officials has not been made public, and it's still unclear whether it will be adopted as a negotiating position. But the fact it's under review suggests Iran is eager for a sweeping deal to lift sanctions and could try to jolt the West with a now-or-never choice: Roll back the sanctions or face a stepped up Iranian nuclear program.
"The West feels sanctions are biting and this is forcing Iran to return to the negotiating table. That's wrong. We never left the table. Sanctions have been harmful but will never make us give up our nuclear activities," said lawmaker Hossein Naqavi, spokesman for the parliament's Security Committee. "Pressures, sanctions and military threats won't make us retreat."
The White House has indicated it would be receptive to landmark one-on-one talks with Iran in parallel with the wider diplomatic process. Iranian officials this week said the country had no plans to meet directly with Washington envoys. On Sunday, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi predicted the stalled talks with world powers could resume as late November, after the U.S. presidential election.
Haghighatpour, the security committee official, said Iran would have never increased the level of its uranium enrichment from 3.5 percent to 20 percent if the West had provided fuel for the research reactor, which produces isotopes to treat cancer patients.
"Some 850,000 Iranian patients need nuclear medicine every year. We wanted fuel for our research reactor but the West refused. We had no option but to increase enrichment to 20 percent and make it ourselves," he said. "It's the same today. They can reach a deal with us now or face a new situation."
Many Iranian lawmakers and conservative clerics have said in recent months that Iran should enrich uranium to higher levels for proposed vessels such as nuclear-powered oil tankers. Iran currently has no such ships.
Nuclear-powered vessels other than warships are rare, and the International Atomic Energy Agency has said in the past that nuclear-powered merchant ships would be uneconomical.
But Iran's deputy navy chief in charge of technical affairs, Adm. Abbas Zamini, said in June that Iran has begun "initial stages" of designing a nuclear submarine. The West has raised concerns that Iran might cite submarine and other nuclear-powered vessel construction as a justification for producing weapons-grade 90 percent enriched uranium.
Nuclear submarines are powered by fuel ranging from 20 percent purity to more than 90 percent. Many U.S. submarines use nuclear fuel enriched to more than 90 percent, the same level used to build atomic bombs.