Doubts loom over nuclear agreement

Tehran refuses to abandon its 'right to enrich' uranium in fresh talks

Western powers began talks with Iran about its nuclear programme yesterday amid confusion as to whether a viable agreement could be reached following combative statements from Tehran.

Iranian officials appeared to rule out the main demand made by the West that enrichment of uranium should take place abroad and not in the Islamic Republic – a safeguard against the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad acquiring a nuclear arsenal.

Tehran had agreed in principle to having the uranium shipped out of the country to be turned into fuel rods and then sent back and there was speculation that the talks – being held in Vienna under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) – with the US, Russia and France would lead to the transfer of 85 per cent of its current stock.

However, a number of officials appeared in the Iranian media to challenge this. Abolfazl Zohrehvand, a senior aide to the country's leading nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, said enrichment to levels of five per cent would take place outside the country. He added: "The importance of this is that Iran will retain the techniques of enrichment .... And we will keep our sites and research centres."

The Iranian nuclear agency spokesman Ali Shirzadian stated if the talks "do not bring about the desired result", Tehran would continue its enrichment programme. "We will never abandon our right to enrich," he said.

Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the IAEA, shrugged off these rumblings, saying yesterday's talks in Vienna had got "off to a good start" and would continue today. But observers noted that Iran had only sent a lower-level technical delegation and not Mr Jalili, casting doubt on a final deal.

It was also not clear what impact the sudden announcement that Tehran's delegation would not deal directly with Paris would have on the tentative agreement for Iran to ship uranium to to France. State-run Iranian television stated that France had failed to deliver "nuclear materials" in the past and that Paris had "interfered" in attempts to improve relations with the IAEA.

The seemingly tougher Iranian stance came as Tehran accused Pakistan, the US and Britain of funding a Sunni militant group, Jundollah, which carried out a weekend suicide bombing attack that killed 42 people, including six senior officers in the Revolutionary Guards. Mohammed Ali Jafari, the Guards' commander-in-chief, said: "Behind this scene are the US and British intelligence apparatus, and there will be retaliatory measures to punish them. We have also got documents proving the involvement of the Pakistanis." The US and UK strenuously denied involvement.

Talks earlier this month in Geneva had led to hopes among Western diplomats that Iran would turn over more than 1,200kg of low-enriched uranium. The amount is viewed as significant as 1,000kg is the accepted threshold of the amount of low-enriched uranium needed to produce weapons-grade uranium.

US authorities have estimated that Iran would be in a position to produce nuclear weapons by 2015. If most of that stock is taken out of the country before being enriched, the argument goes, Tehran would not be in a position to manufacture weapons-grade uranium. However, David Albright of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, said: "It buys some time. But Iran could replace even 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium in about a year."