Iran sees chance to improve ties with U.S. - minister

VIENNA Fri Mar 1, 2013 4:47pm IST

Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi delivers a speech at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin February 4, 2013. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi delivers a speech at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin February 4, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Thomas Peter

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VIENNA (Reuters) - Iran's foreign minister said he sees a chance to improve ties with the United States, despite a longrunning standoff with major powers over his country's disputed nuclear programme.

Austrian newspaper Wiener Zeitung also quoted Ali Akbar Salehi as saying that Iran was reducing stockpiles of its most sensitive nuclear material, which the West fears could be used to make bombs. Iran denies seeking a nuclear weapons capability.

Asked whether U.S. President Barack Obama's re-election could lead to a better climate between two nations that severed diplomatic ties more than three decades ago, Salehi said: "This environment is just being created and shaped. I think both sides want to use this opportunity."

Tehran struck an upbeat tone after talks this week with world powers ended with an agreement to meet again, but Western officials said it had yet to take concrete steps to ease their fears about its nuclear ambitions.

In the Wiener Zeitung interview published on Friday, Salehi referred to the latest talks in Kazakhstan as a "milestone" and likened the situation to ice that was beginning to melt.

He gave no details about the negotiations, but said Iran was increasing efforts to reduce stockpiles of uranium enriched to 20 percent purity, a bone of contention with the West.

Salehi said nearly 100 kg (220 lb) of the roughly 250 kg of uranium Iran has enriched to 20 percent purity so far had been processed into fuel plates for a research reactor in Tehran.

"So far we have produced two of these plates per month. In future we want to produce three, four or perhaps even more fuel plates every month. This is how we want to reduce the supply of 20 percent enriched uranium in the medium term," he said.

Iran says it has a sovereign right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes and that it wants to fuel nuclear power plants so that it can export more oil.

But 20 percent purity is far higher than that needed for nuclear power, and rings alarm bells abroad because it is only a short technical step away from weapons-grade uranium. Iran says it produces higher-grade uranium to fuel the research reactor.

A report by the U.N. nuclear watchdog last month said Iran had increased its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium to 167 kg.

Diplomats say conversion of more of Iran's higher-grade enriched uranium into reactor fuel could buy time for negotiations between Washington and Tehran on its nuclear programme.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has called the talks in Kazakhstan "useful" and said that a serious engagement by Iran could lead to a comprehensive deal in a decade-old dispute that has threatened to trigger a new Middle East war.

(Reporting by Michael Shields; Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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