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Iran, world powers respond to counter-offers
by Staff Writers
Almaty, Kazakhstan (AFP) Feb 27, 2013

Iran exploring second route to nuclear bomb: report
London (AFP) Feb 26, 2013 - Satellite images show that Iran's Arak heavy-water plan is operational, raising fears that it is trying to produce plutonium for a nuclear bomb, Britain's Daily Telegraph claimed on Tuesday.

The newspaper published images on its website which appear to show steam rising from forced air coolers, suggesting heavy-water production at the plant, which has been closed to international inspectors for 18 months.

Heavy water is required in plutonium-producing reactors and that raises alarms that Tehran is seeking a second path to obtain the bomb.

Stuart Ray of consultancy firm McKenzie Intelligence Services told the paper that the images, commissioned from commercial satellite operators, suggested that the heavily-guarded facility was "operational".

World powers and Iran on Tuesday exchanged offers at talks in Kazakhstan aimed at breaking a decade of deadlock over Tehran's disputed nuclear drive.

International efforts have so far been concentrated on the Islamic Republic's attempts to enrich uranium, but the Telegraph insists that the new evidence shows it is developing a "Plan B".

According to the paper, western governments have known about activity at Arak for some time.

Plutonium is produced as part of the mix in spent nuclear fuel, along with unused uranium.

To make plutonium usable, a reprocessing plant is needed to separate it from the other materials in spent fuel. It can then be embedded into the core of a nuclear weapon.

North Korea has recently developed such technology and experts fear Iran may follow suit, triggering responses from its foes.

"Some think Israel's red line for military action is before Arak comes online," said Mark Fitzpatrick, a former US State Department official at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

"The option of a military strike on an operating reactor would present enormous complications because of the radiation that would be spread," he explained in comments published by the Telegraph.

International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors have been barred from the site since August 2011 and Iran has rebuffed appeals for information about the facility.

Tehran denies it is developing nuclear weapons and wants the world to respect what it says is its right to enrich uranium -- something current UN sanctions say it cannot do because of its refusal to cooperate with nuclear inspectors.

Iran already has a nuclear power plant in the southern city of Bushehr -- built with Russian help -- but Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has described atomic weapons as a sin.

World powers and Iran were due Wednesday to respond to offers presented by both sides in a final day of talks aimed at breaking a decade of deadlock over Tehran's nuclear drive.

The first day of gruelling negotiations in a swank hotel in Kazakhstan's commercial capital Almaty concluded Tuesday with both sides relieved to have pushed the talks along for another day.

They swapped offers that could ease some sanctions on Iran in exchange for concessions on its disputed nuclear programme -- proposals that had been discussed in various forms at three previous meetings in the past year.

The big power's official spokesman measured his words carefully as he laid out what the world expected Iran to do next to convince nations it was not in hot pursuit of a nuclear bomb.

"We hope very much that the Iranian side comes back (on Wednesday) showing flexibility and a willingness to negotiate," added the spokesman for EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton.

"The ball is very much in their court," Michael Mann stressed.

On the table is an offer for the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany to ease sanctions on Iran's gold and precious metals trade while simultaneously lifting some restrictions on the Islamic republic's banking operations.

The measures are meant to introduce good will in Tehran while encouraging it to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent -- a level seen as being within striking distance of military capabilities.

The powers also want Iran to shut the Fordo plant where such high-grade material is produced and to ship out the existing stock it does not need for established medical purposes.

Iran counters that its rights to enrich uranium -- entrusted to every nation but stripped from Iran due to its failure to cooperate with nuclear inspectors -- must be respected before negotiations can proceed any further.

Iran has also stipulated that it would only consider giving up enrichment to 20 percent if all forms of sanctions against it were lifted -- a condition unpalatable to Washington.

"We will not accept anything beyond our obligations and will not accept anything less than our rights," Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili declared before setting off for Kazakhstan.

US Secretary of State John Kerry countered on a visit to Berlin on Tuesday that he hoped "Iran itself will make its choice to move down the path of a diplomatic solution" -- comments carrying the implicit threat of air strikes of the type threatened by Israel.

The Jewish state launched a unilateral attack against the Osirak nuclear reactor in Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 1981 and has spoken of Iran approaching the same "red line" that demanded immediate action.

Few expect Wednesday's meeting to conclude with anything beyond promises to hold more discussions at various levels. But proponents of this approach argue that such painstaking negotiations avert much more serious dangers.

"It's clear that no one expects everyone to walk out of here in Almaty with a done deal. This is a negotiating process," Ashton's spokesman Mann said.

Iran already has a nuclear power plant in the southern city of Bushehr -- built with Russian help -- but Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has described atomic weapons as a "sin".


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