- The Washington Times - Friday, April 10, 2009

ISFAHAN, Iran | Iran’s president said Thursday that his country is open to talks offered by the United States and other countries about its nuclear program.

But he insisted the talks must be based on respect for Iran’s rights, suggesting that the West should not try to force Tehran to stop uranium enrichment.

Hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made the comments during celebrations for Iran’s National Day of Nuclear Technology, in which advances in Iran’s nuclear program were announced.

Among them, nuclear chief and Vice President Gholam Reza Aghazadeh said the number of centrifuges at Iran’s uranium enrichment facility had increased to 7,000 —up from 6,000 announced in February —and that a new, more advanced centrifuge had been tested. Mr. Ahmadinejad also announced the opening of a plant to develop uranium fuel for a planned hard-water reactor.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday that she did not view the latest Iranian claims about its nuclear program as a rebuff to U.S. overtures to engage Iran.

“We do not attribute any particular meaning, with respect to the range of issues that we are looking to address with the Iranians, from this particular statement,” Mrs. Clinton said at a news conference,

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s comments came after the United States and other nations invited Iran to direct talks about resolving the standoff over its nuclear ambitions. The Obama administration’s announcement that it would join the talks marked a shift from the policy of former President George W. Bush, whose administration generally shunned such meetings.

Mr. Ahmadinejad said past talks with European nations failed because “they were insisting on stopping our peaceful activities, they were trying to impose that. It was clear the Iranian people would not accept that.”

“The Iranian nation has always been for talks,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said. But “dialogue has to be based on justice and respecting rights. … Justice means both sides are treated equally and bilateral rights are respected.”

The United Nations has demanded that Iran halt uranium enrichment, a process that can produce nuclear fuel but also the material for a warhead. Iran denies any intention to build a bomb and has refused to halt enrichment, saying it has a right to develop peaceful nuclear technology.

In past talks, European nations offered a package of economic incentives for Tehran to suspend enrichment, but Iran refused.

In the enrichment process, uranium gas is pumped into a series of thousands of centrifuges, which spin it at supersonic speeds to isolate a rare form of uranium that can sustain a nuclear chain reaction. Uranium enriched to a low degree is used to fuel a nuclear reactor, but when enriched to a high degree it produces material for the core of a warhead.

Thursday’s ceremony celebrated the National Day of Nuclear Technology, the day in 2006 when Iran first enriched uranium at its facility in the town of Natanz. Since then, it is believed to have enriched enough uranium to build a bomb —though first the uranium would have to be more highly enriched, and it is not known whether Iran has perfected such techniques. Iran said the enriched uranium is for its first domestically produced nuclear plant, expected to open in several years.

Mr. Ahmadinejad also said the country has inaugurated a facility producing uranium fuel for a heavy-water nuclear reactor that is under construction in the central town of Arak. The 40-megawatt nuclear reactor, which has been in construction for the past four years, is expected to be completed in 2009 or 2010.

Fuel that is used up by heavy-water reactors can be processed to produce plutonium, another element that can be used to power a nuclear chain reaction and therefore a warhead.

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