Iran said on Thursday it had not yet begun any uranium enrichment and was still ready to negotiate on a Russian proposal for resolving a dispute with the West over its nuclear program.
The Islamic Republic said the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), could monitor its nuclear program despite Tehran's decision to remove some surveillance cameras. The only solution to the impasse, it said, was for the West to stop threats and focus on negotiations.
No immediate comment was available from the Vienna-based IAEA, which has said Iran resumed small-scale feeding of uranium gas into centrifuge enrichment machines on Tuesday after a break of 2 and a half years.
Earlier on Thursday, France accused Iran of pursuing a secret military nuclear program, drawing a swift rebuke from Tehran before talks next week on the Russian proposal. Iran says its nuclear program is solely for power generation.
The United States said the international community was very concerned about Iran developing nuclear arms but diplomacy was being used to try to resolve the standoff. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was very optimistic about the diplomacy.
Gholamreza Aghazadeh, head of Iran's Atomic Energy Agency, told state television Tehran had not yet enriched any uranium, a process Western countries suspect could lead to the development of nuclear weapons.
"We have injected gas into a very small number of centrifuges ... but we have not even reached to the stage of even a small pilot test. Testing on the 164 centrifuges has not happened yet," Aghazadeh said.
"(The Russian proposal) can be studied. We should not deprive ourselves from our right of processing in any negotiation."
Russia has offered to enrich Iranian uranium on its soil and return it to Iran for use in atomic reactors, thereby easing international concerns Iran could produce bomb-grade uranium.
"Even after we scaled down the supervisions to the framework of the NPT (nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty), the agency still does not have any problems about the supervision of our activities," Aghazadeh said.
"Those surveillance cameras that were not required by the Additional Protocol were removed, but those that are needed according to the Additional Protocol are still in their places."
Iran signed the Additional Protocol to the NPT in 2003, thereby allowing short-notice inspections of its atomic sites. But the Iranian parliament has not ratified it.
Aghazadeh said threats against Iran would only backfire.
"We are ready to negotiate and we will negotiate, it is better for them to stop threatening us," he said.
"I believe that apart from America and Israel, the other countries want to find a way out of the current situation and we want a solution as well, so everyone should make an attempt to resolve the issue."
In the earlier exchanges that boded ill for talks in Moscow on Monday on the Russian proposal, French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said Iran's nuclear work could not possibly be designed for civilian uses alone.
"No civilian nuclear program can explain the Iranian nuclear program. So it is a clandestine Iranian military nuclear program," Douste-Blazy told France 2 television.
"The international community has sent a very firm message by saying to the Iranians: 'Come back to reason. Suspend all nuclear activity and the enrichment of uranium and the conversion of uranium'. They are not listening to us."
Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani responded with a warning to the West not to hector Tehran.
"I suggest that Mr. Douste-Blazy use a diplomatic tone and avoid increasing the tension," said Larijani.
Iran's Energy Minister Parviz Fattah said despite huge oil and gas reserves the country needed nuclear power to meet booming demand.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said: "We are continuing to pursue a diplomatic approach to resolve this matter. The international community is very concerned about (Iran's) continued pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability."
Merkel told German ZDF television: "I am very optimistic. The diplomatic route has every chance of success."
China, which like France is a permanent UN Security Council member, said it was concerned about the standoff.
"It's extremely important for the international community to uphold the consensus on resolving the Iran nuclear issue through diplomatic means," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said.
A top Russian general said Washington might eventually use force against Iran, with perilous consequences for the world.
"Can the developments surrounding Iran follow a military path? I cannot rule this out," Russian Chief of Staff General Yuri Baluyevsky was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.
Douste-Blazy said the UN Security Council would decide what action to take on Iran once IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei submitted a report in March.
The IAEA's board of governors decided on February 4 to report Iran to the council, which has the power to impose sanctions.
Aghazadeh said military threats against Iran were worthless.
"Sanctions and military threats are not effective and they have a lot of experience from attacking Iraq," he said.
"Even if we are sent to the UN Security Council, there is no way but negotiations."
(Chinadaily.com via agencies February 17, 2006)