A defiant Iran starts potentially make-or-break nuclear talks on Thursday with six world powers after setting alarm bells ringing by admitting it is building a second uranium enrichment plant.
The much-awaited negotiations in Geneva come amid peaking tension after Iran shocked the world by disclosing to the UN nuclear watchdog on September 21 that it is building a second uranium enrichment plant near the holy city of Qom.
Following the announcement, Iran test-fired a series of long, medium and short-range missiles this week, some of which it claims can hit targets inside arch-foe Israel.
Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili meets representatives from Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States to discuss the nuclear issue. Tehran risks tougher sanctions if the negotiations fail.
Earlier this month Iran presented a new package of proposals to the six powers which it wants to be the basis of the talks on October 1.
The package, it says, aims to address the issue of global nuclear disarmament and does not mention its own atomic programme, including the sensitive uranium enrichment drive.
Iran wants comprehensive talks on a wide range of issues and says it has a lot to offer in terms of security in a volatile region, where US-led forces are involved in wars in Iran’s neighbours, Iraq and Afghanistan.
But Tehran has underscored that its nuclear “rights” -- an euphemism for uranium enrichment which the UN Security Council wants suspended -- are not negotiable.
“We will not accept any new conditions in the nuclear issue,” said Alaeddin Borujerdi, head of parliament’s national security and foreign policy commission on Monday.
He also warned against the “propaganda” by Western powers over Tehran’s disclosure of the new enrichment facility.
“If this ... is effective, the talks will fail and these countries will be back to square one,” the conservative lawmaker said.
Oil-rich Iran insists it has a right to uranium enrichment, which makes nuclear fuel as well as the fissile core of an atom bomb, as a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Iran vehemently denies Western allegations of seeking atomic weapons, insisting the programme is aimed at peaceful ends such as making fuel for power plants although its first Russian-built and long-delayed nuclear plant is yet to come on line.
Washington, which has been spearheading international efforts to thwart Iran’s nuclear drive, has already expressed dissatisfaction with the proposals but Moscow, which has the closest ties with Iran among the six, said they offered something to talk about.
However, in a major policy shift Russia said earlier this month that Iran could face crippling sanctions if it fails to make concessions in talks.
Iran has rejected allegations of pursuing clandestine nuclear work made by Western leaders, including US President Barack Obama, and said IAEA inspectors were allowed to visit the new enrichment site.
The United States and its regional ally Israel have never ruled out a military option to stop Tehran’s nuclear drive.
Iran has hit back by vowing a crushing response to attackers on its nuclear sites and has previously threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, a major passageway for oil, as it regularly flexes military muscles and conducts missile tests.
Iran’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi said atomic installations in the country faced “threats every day” and that Tehran “had to take measures to disperse” their locations.
But he vowed that Iran would stick to enrichment up to the five percent level -- much lower than bomb-grade requirement.
In Geneva, Iran is reportedly going to ask world powers the go-ahead to import uranium enriched to 20 percent to use in a research reactor.
The group of six previously offered Tehran a package of incentives including better trade ties and technological cooperation, in return for suspending enrichment. But Tehran was unimpressed with the rewards.