The United States and Europe said they were studying a letter from Iran's top nuclear negotiator responding to their proposal for new international nuclear talks. The letter from Iran's Saeed Jalili was received by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on Wednesday, Ashton's spokeswoman confirmed to Yahoo News.
"I can confirm High Representative Ashton received the letter from Dr. [Saeed] Jalili today," Maja Kocijancic, a spokeswoman for Ashton, told Yahoo News Wednesday. "We are carefully studying the letter and consulting with our E3+3 partners" on their response.
The State Department confirmed that it has received the letter and said U.S. officials are studying it, a State Department spokeswoman said.
The long-awaited Iranian RSVP comes as the Obama administration said this week that it believes Iran wants to return to nuclear negotiations, Yahoo News reported Tuesday. Dennis Ross, Obama's former adviser on Iran, repeated the claim in an op-ed in the New York Times on Wednesday. International talks with Iran broke down after the last meeting, held in Istanbul in January 2011, over Iran's insistence that international sanctions be lifted before it make concessions on its nuclear program.
Jalili, in his letter to Ashton this week, "announced Tehran's readiness to continue negotiations," Iran's Asre Iran newspaper reported Wednesday, according to a translation provided to Yahoo News. The letter urged that international talks "return to the essential steps for collaboration" and "emphasized that success depends on the constructive reaction by the P5+1 to Iran's initiatives." It also reasserted Iran's right to a peaceful nuclear energy program.
The developments come as Washington nuclear experts downplayed the significance of Iran's declaration Wednesday that it had begun loading domestically-produced nuclear fuel rods into a Tehran reactor used to provide treatment for Iranian cancer patients. Those experts were, however, still evaluating a second announcement that the country had brought online a cascade of new generation centrifuges at Iran's above-ground Natanz uranium enrichment facility.
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad presided over the ceremony marking Iran's nuclear achievements at the Natanz site, which was video-broadcast on Iranian state media. A reporter with Iran's semi-official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) who attended the Natanz ceremony wrote that the new centrifuges installed at the facility have "a three-fold higher capacity" compared to older models, and would boost Iran's capacity to produce 3.5% lower-enriched nuclear fuel by 50 percent, the news agency reported.
For all the national bravado on display at the Iranian ceremony, however, the actual technological achievement is modest and should not be cause for particular alarm in the West, said Paul Brannan, an Iran nuclear expert with the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), a Washington, D.C.-based nuclear research group said.
"This is more of the same," Brannon told Yahoo News in an interview Wednesday. The Iranians "make incremental steps to create fuel for reactors. ...They announce such incremental steps as if it is more of an accomplishment than it actually is."
"It's posturing," said Peter Crail, an Iran expert with the Arms Control Association.
These announcements are likely intended to project that Iran is strong and tough, so they are not perceived, in accepting new talks, to be bending to international pressure and coercion, he suggested. "Whether they are willing to compromise is another thing."
The developments came as a forthcoming ISIS report--obtained in advance by Yahoo News--concludes that Iran is unlikely to have a nuclear weapons "break out" in 2012.
"Iran is already capable of making weapon-grade uranium and a crude nuclear explosive device," the 50-page report, titled "Preventing Iran from Getting Nuclear Weapons," and authored by Brannan, former nuclear inspector David Albright, Andrea Stricker, and Christina Walrond, states. "Nonetheless, Iran is unlikely to break out in 2012, in large part because it will remain deterred from doing so and limited in its options for quickly making enough weapon-grade uranium."
"If Iran tried to 'break out,'"-- or, moved to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear device--"it would take seven months to do at Natanz," Brannan said. Iran would be deterred from doing that because it would take so long, the facility is a declared site under regular inspection, and the West would detect it. Iran currently doesn't have enough centrifuges at a second facility, Fordo, to do the work, he said.
Iran "is currently in a poor position to build nuclear weapons covertly and is thus unlikely to attempt to do so this year," the report continues.
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