Iran has begun installing next-generation equipment at one of its main nuclear plants, a new U.N. atomic agency report said Thursday, five days before talks with world powers.
“On 6 February 2013, the Agency observed that Iran had started the installation of IR-2m centrifuges” at the Natanz plant, the International Atomic Energy Agency report said.
“This is the first time that centrifuges more advanced than the IR-1 have been installed” at the plant, it said.
If operated successfully, such machines could enable Iran to significantly speed up its accumulation of material that the West fears could be used to devise a nuclear weapon.
Before IAEA’s report, France on Thursday confirmed that world powers will make a “substantial” new offer to Iran in a bid to resolve the dispute over its nuclear program at talks next week in Kazakhstan.
“We will make a new offer that will contain significant new elements,” the French foreign ministry’s deputy spokesman, Vincent Floreani, said.
The next round of talks with Iran under the “P5+1” format – U.N. Security Council members Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, plus Germany -- will be held on February 26 in Almaty after a long gap.
“We hope that Iran will attend this meeting with a constructive spirit and will be ready to discuss, in detail and with a renewed perspective, aspects of its nuclear program that remain to be clarified,” he said.
“We want a true exchange, leading to concrete results,” Floreani said.
A Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters in London on Wednesday of the plan to make the “serious and substantial” new offer to Iran.
These latest talks follow three rounds of negotiations in 2012, the last in Moscow in June, at which world powers pressed Iran to scale back key areas of its nuclear program.
Iran however walked away because the P5+1 stopped short of offering Tehran relief from U.N. Security Council and unilateral Western sanctions that are causing major economic problems for the country.
Iran envoy threatens West
On Wednesday, a top Iranian envoy warned that increased Western pressure over his country’s nuclear program could end hopes for a negotiated settlement.
Ahead of key new negotiations in Kazakhstan, Iran’s U.N. Ambassador Mohammad Khazaee said that his country wants talks, but hit out at Western tactics of sanctions along with engagement.
Khazaee, Iran’s senior diplomat in the United States in the absence of formal ties between the arch-rivals, warned that more sanctions could doom talks over Iran’s nuclear drive, which the West and Israel worry, is a cover to build an atomic bomb.
“More pressure can only beget more distrust, leading Iran, in turn, to lose hope in a negotiated settlement,” the envoy said at the Asia Society in New York.
“As long as pressure is on Iran, as long as there is a sword on our neck to come to negotiations, this is not negotiations, therefore Iranians cannot accept that,” added Khazaee, whose country denies that it seeks a bomb but has rejected U.N. Security Council demands to halt uranium enrichment.
Khazaee said President Barack Obama’s administration declared “economic war” against Iran.
He also stressed that Iranian leaders had welcomed recent U.S. calls for diplomatic talks.
Power struggle priority for Iran
With a presidential election looming in June, the latest round of negotiations may amount to little more than “holding talks” to at least keep the diplomatic door open.
“Iran is in listening mode. They’ll go back to Tehran and look at the offer,” said a Western diplomat based in Tehran. “But they’re unlikely to discuss issues in depth until the insecurity in the domestic power struggle has been clarified.”
A closer look may give Western governments some reason for optimism. Iran’s clerical leadership has recently offered signs of interest in closer engagement with them, helping lay the groundwork for Tehran’s presence in the former Kazakh capital.
Iran’s intelligence ministry published a report on its website last November touting the merits of diplomatic engagement to parry the threat of military action by enemies.
“It is clear that the outbreak of war and resorting to force is so serious and dreadful that the slightest neglect of it is an unforgivable sin,” said the report by the ministry, which is controlled by Heydar Moslehi, a close ally of Iran’s ultimate political authority, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
But much hinges on Iran’s forthcoming election, which could scuttle any chances of rapid progress in the near future.