AP Interview: Iran speaker touts surplus uranium

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Iran's Parliament speaker Ali Larijani answers a question during a press conference on the sidelines of the 129th Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013. (AP Photo/Keystone, Salvatore Di Nolfi)

GENEVA (AP) — Iran has more enriched uranium than it needs for its research and would be willing to discuss the "surplus" with Western powers during nuclear talks next week, Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani said Wednesday.

In an Associated Press interview, Larijani said Iran is open to discussions about what to do with the 20 percent enriched uranium that it doesn't need. Iran has reported to the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency that it has turned half of its 20 percent enriched uranium into a powder form that cannot easily be used to make weapons-grade fuel.

"We have some surplus, you know, the amount that we don't need. But over that we can have some discussions," he said in Farsi, through his English translator.

A key concession sought by Western powers in negotiations is for Iran to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent. Larijani said Iran produced the enriched uranium itself because the IAEA would not provide it, and insisted it needs the material only for research and isotopes for medical treatments, not for nuclear weapons.

He indicated a willingness to negotiate on that, too.

"Through the process of negotiations, yes, things can be said and they can discuss this matter," he said, on the sidelines of a meeting of the world organization of parliaments.

The talks on Iran's nuclear program will be held next week with the five permanent U.N. Security Council members — the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France — plus Germany, collectively known as the P5+1.

The U.S. and its allies accuse Iran of using its civilian nuclear program as a cover to develop nuclear weapons, and the P5+1 want Tehran to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent, a grade that is only a technical step away from the level used to arm nuclear warheads. It then wants the 20-percent stockpile transferred out of the country.

The group also demands that Iran agree to shut down its bomb-resistant underground bunker known as Fordo, where it is enriching uranium to 20 percent, before discussing sanctions relief on Iranian oil and financial transactions.

Iran's nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, has not publicly specified what measures Tehran might take to ease Western concerns that its nuclear program could one day produce atomic weapons. The sanctions, which have imposed hardship on Iran's people, have done little to accomplish the aim of stopping Iran's expanding nuclear program.

President Barack Obama disclosed in an AP interview last Friday that U.S. intelligence agencies believe Iran continues to be a year or more away from building a nuclear weapon, in contrast to Israel's assessment that Tehran is much closer.

Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani have spoken on the phone — becoming the first U.S. and Iranian leaders to have direct contact in more than 30 years. Larijani acknowledged that has upset some hard-liners in Iran.

"They are a little bit pessimistic about it, suspicious. So, they have their own sway, and they put pressure, but we do support Mr. Rouhani. And God willing, he will have the parliament's support" in the nuclear talks, Larijani said.

Larijani, formerly Iran's top nuclear negotiator, said he believes there will be no progress next week unless the U.S. offers to curtail some of the West's crippling economic sanctions.

He said "it is too soon to pass any judgment" on whether U.S.-Iranian diplomatic ties might be restored. Switzerland now represents U.S. diplomatic interests in Iran.

The countries broke ties after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when mobs stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. A total of 52 hostages were held for 444 days.

At a news conference Wednesday in Geneva, Larijani told reporters the upcoming nuclear negotiation "mostly concerns building confidence rather than a commercial give-and-take." They are a continuation of talks that began in 2003 between Iran and Britain, France and Germany, and later expanded to include the United States, Russia and China, but have failed so far to achieve any substantive progress.

"My feeling is that Iran wants to see a resolution to the matter through political negotiations," he said. "I look at the upcoming negotiations positively."