Iran appears to be attempting to address global worries over its atomic activities by transforming in excess of 33 percent of its higher-enriched uranium into a powdered form largely unsuitable for use in nuclear weapons, the Associated Press reported on Sunday.
The United States, Israel and other nations have for years asserted that Iran is seeking a nuclear-weapon capability under the guise of a nonmilitary atomic program, a claim vehemently denied in Tehran. Of particular worry has been the nation's enrichment of uranium to 20 percent. Iran says the material is necessary for a medical research reactor, while other governments say it is a key step toward production of weapon-grade uranium, which requires an enrichment level of about 90 percent.
Iran is offering a "serious and concrete confidence-building measure" by changing some of its existing stock of higher-enriched uranium into powdered uranium oxide, said leading lawmaker Hossein Naqavi.
The International Atomic Energy Agency states in an Aug. 30 document that 157 of Iran's roughly 419 pounds of 20 percent-enriched uranium had been used in the conversion effort. The total stockpile was sufficient for keeping the research plant operating for years, noted former IAEA safeguards chief Olli Heinonen.
Iran's end goal with this measure might be to promote another round of discussions with the United States and five other world powers -- following three sets of talks so far this year -- and to bolster its efforts to persuade Western nations to ease economic penalties that are choking the Iranian economy.
"Once converted into [uranium oxide], it's not usable for producing bomb-grade uranium and of little proliferation concern," AP quoted Iranian atomic scientist Rasoul Sediqi Bonabi as saying.
Heinonen noted, though, that Iran continues to manufacture roughly 33 pounds of higher-enriched uranium per month and could raise that level to 44 pounds monthly. Two other issue experts also said it would be possible for Iran to change the material back into uranium gas.
Iran on Saturday dismissed a New York Times article that reported the nation had presented a "nine-step plan" that would ultimately lead to closure of at least one uranium enrichment plant, Reuters reported.
The Thursday newspaper report said the Obama administration had already rejected the proposal, which called for the lifting of sanctions against Iran and for the calls for the International Atomic Energy Agency to formally close an investigation into concerns over possible nuclear weapon-relevant studies in the Middle Eastern state.
"No new offer outside of the framework of the P-5+1 negotiations during the last meeting of the United Nations has been made, and the claims of some American news organizations in this regard are baseless," lead Iranian nuclear envoy Saeed Jalili said in a Saturday report by the Mehr News Agency.
The P-5+1 refers to Germany and permanent U.N. Security Council member states China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Meanwhile, tensions between Iran and the U.N. nuclear watchdog have spiked in recent weeks amid claims since last month of an IAEA link to purported attacks on the electrical operations of the nation's two uranium enrichment plants, the Washington Post reported. The incident was said to occur while agency personnel were in Iran in August, Iranian atomic energy head Fereidoun Abbasi said last month.
Agency personnel first denied the claims made by Abbasi behind closed doors and to the IAEA governing board, said envoys from Western nations and informed government personnel. A subsequent IAEA analysis did not show with finality that the incidents had actually happened, added two European envoys informed on the assessment.
Iran's atomic efforts have previously been subject to outside interference, highlighted by computer-based strikes believed carried out by Israel and the United States. There has been no proof that the U.N. agency has supported such efforts, heightening concerns that Iran is trying to create justification to curb its assistance to the IAEA investigation of its nuclear program.
Agency personnel who have traveled to Iran from the middle of August have faced demonstrations in Tehran and quiet cautioning that they would be held to account for subsequent strikes against the nation's atomic infrastructure, according to sources.
“The message from Iran was: ‘If we have to reduce cooperation with you, the IAEA itself will be to blame. And if we get attacked, the IAEA and its leaders will be responsible,’ ” said one envoy.
Both the U.N. agency and Iran's representative at the organization offered no statements for the article.
A new report from the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington says it would take Iran no less than two to four months to prepare 55.1 pounds of uranium to power one nuclear bomb, Reuters reported.
"If Iran were to attempt to make a nuclear weapon, it would likely face new engineering challenges, despite work it may have done in the past," according to the analysis.
Issue specialists have noted the difficulty of preparing a uranium-powered warhead that could be carried by a missile.
"Iran would thus need many additional months to manufacture a nuclear device suitable for underground testing and even longer to make a reliable warhead for a ballistic missile," the report says.
Its authors noted, though, that the United States and U.N. nuclear watchdog would clearly identify any "nuclear breakout" over the next 12 months, and that Washington and partner governments "maintain the ability to respond forcefully to any Iranian decision to break out."
The Obama administration hopes to restart nuclear talks with Iran following the Nov. 6 presidential election, assuming President Barack Obama wins a second term in office, al-Monitor reported on Monday. That aspiration could run up against the looming Iranian presidential elections in spring 2013.
British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond indicated further economic punishment could be applied to force Iran to compromise over its nuclear efforts, Agence France-Presse reported on Sunday.
Tehran has already been hit with four U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions and an escalating set of unilateral measures by the United States and other nations. The European Union in July implemented a full embargo on Iranian oil. The value of Iran's currency as of last week had fallen by 40 percent.
France, Germany and the United Kingdom are expected at an EU ministerial meeting on Oct. 5 to push for increased pressure on Iranian energy and economic activities.
"There is talk of a general trade embargo and of shutting down the remaining access that Iran has to international banking channels. We can definitely make the pain much greater," Hammond said to the London Observer.
"The only thing that is likely to budge the regime is if they see or sense an existential threat," he added.
"If the level of economic pressure starts to translate into potentially regime-threatening disruption and dissent on the streets of Tehran, then they may change course," Hammond said.