- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 11, 2011

VIENNA, Austria (AP) — Iran wants to use a new round of talks on its nuclear program to discuss its rights as a nation instead of Western fears that it’s building a nuclear bomb, according to confidential letters obtained Wednesday by the Associated Press.

The correspondence appeared certain to strengthen Western fears that Iran is drawing out years of negotiations with procedural delays and rhetorical debates in order to gain time to enrich enough uranium to build a bomb — an intention Iran denies.

Iranian state televison channel said Tuesday that the government had accepted a European Union proposal for a new meeting. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the meeting would be held in Istanbul.

The last session in January ended in failure, and the correspondence between top EU foreign official Catherine Ashton and chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili about the new meeting provides little cause for optimism.

Ms. Ashton’s Feb. 11 letter says new talks need to focus on reducing fears about Iran’s nuclear ambitions; Mr. Jalili’s May 8 response avoids any mention of that request. Instead, it talks of the need to show “respect for democracy and the rights of the people” as the basis for new negotiations.

Uranium enrichment lies at the heart of the dispute between Iran and the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — the six world powers trying to nudge it toward compromise.

Low-enriched uranium — at about 3.5 percent — can be used to fuel a reactor to generate electricity, which Iran says is the intention of its growing uranium enrichment program. But if uranium is further enriched, to about 90 percent purity, it can be used to develop a nuclear warhead.

A series of failed international attempts to persuade Iran to stop enriching since its enrichment program was revealed in 2002 has allowed it to amass enough enriched uranium to make more than two nuclear warheads, should it chose to do so. Iran says it has no such intentions, insisting it is enriching only to make fuel for a future nuclear reactor network.

Western responses to the Jalili letter were unenthusiastic.

British and U.S. government officials both said Wednesday in statements to reporters that Iran should be “prepared to negotiate seriously on the nuclear issue” if talks are to resume.

“Our bottom line is that we believe Iran needs to come prepared for serious discussions if they take place,” said U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner.

Iran came to talks in Istanbul in January six months after a failed meeting in Geneva, again declaring it would not even consider freezing uranium enrichment — and left the negotiations repeating the same mantra.

Throughout two days of hectic meetings, it stubbornly pushed demands it must have known were unacceptable to the six — a lifting of four sets of U.N. Security Council sanctions for its refusal to suspend enrichment and acceptance of its enrichment program before any further discussion of its nuclear activities.

Ms. Ashton’s letter to Mr. Jalili speaks of “our disappointing meeting in Istanbul.” It says a negotiated solution would need to “restore confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of your nuclear programme. And it says that Tehran’s preconditions — that its right to enrich be recognized and that U.N. sanctions be lifted — “are not acceptable to us.”

“As far as the removal of sanctions are concerned, we regard that as something which would accompany the re-establishment of confidence in the Iranian nuclear programme, rather than as a pre-condition for achieving it,” the letter says.

In his response, Mr. Jalili suggests big-power intransigence is the reason for the deadlock.

“Accepting the legitimate requests of the nations and refraining from conducts based on supremacy are the only way out of the current self created stalemate,” his letter says.

Sidestepping the main big-power demand — substantive talks on Iran’s enrichment program — Mr. Jalili says issues could focuse on “combating the root cause of terrorism, drug trafficking, piracy in the high seas” and other issues considered secondary by Iran’s interlocutors.

It lists nuclear issues that Tehran is prepared to discuss as “international efforts for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation as well as cooperation for peaceful uses of nuclear energy (and) assisting enhancement of nuclear safety.”

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