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Iranian Leader Reaffirms Offer of Talks

Times Staff Writer

Iran pushed ahead on its nuclear program Tuesday as the country’s most powerful figure reaffirmed its willingness to hold face-to-face talks with the United States on Iraq -- sending a somewhat mixed message to the international community.

Talks at the United Nations Security Council about a response to Iran’s nuclear program remained stalled as diplomats from Russia and China argued with representatives of the European Union and the United States over how hard to press Iran to halt its efforts to start uranium enrichment.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the ultimate say in Tehran on all state matters, said Iran was prepared to discuss ways to stabilize Iraq with an American delegation.

“If the Iranian officials can make the U.S. understand some issues about Iraq, there is no problem with the negotiations,” Khamenei said in a speech broadcast on state television.

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But he went on to warn the United States that Iran should be treated with the respect appropriate to one of the most powerful countries in the region. “If the talks mean opening a venue for bullying and imposition by the deceitful party [the Americans], then it will be forbidden,” Khamenei said.

His comments came as President Bush warned that “if the Iranians were to have a nuclear weapon, they could blackmail the world” because “they’re not welcoming the international inspections.”

Meanwhile, diplomats close to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna confirmed that Iran had assembled 164 centrifuges -- enough to combine into what engineers call a cascade, which can be used to spin uranium hexafluoride gas into enriched uranium.

That step would put Iran back at the level of technology it had achieved before it agreed to a moratorium on nuclear development in 2003. Nuclear experts believe that some of its equipment deteriorated during the moratorium.

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Iran has yet to complete the piping system needed to move uranium gas from one centrifuge to the next. Until the system is finished and sealed, enrichment cannot begin. Experts disagreed over how long those next steps could take.

“This is the next rung on the technical ladder,” said David Albright, a former weapons inspector who is president of the Institute for Science and Interna tional Security in Washington.

A U.S. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Iran’s move was “more rapid progress than we expected.”

When enriched to a relatively low level, uranium can be used to fuel a reactor to generate electricity.

At higher levels of enrichment, uranium can be used to make a bomb.

Officials of the United States and some other Western countries believe that Iran is trying to attain the technology and know-how to make an atomic bomb. Iranian leaders insist that they are trying to make enriched uranium only for civilian use.

It is technically possible to manufacture enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb using a 164-centrifuge cascade, but the process would take 10 years. Weapons experts do not think that is Iran’s plan. Instead, the experts say their concern is that running a small cascade would give Iran the technical knowledge to build and operate a far larger one.


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