VIENNA, Austria -- Iran began to enrich a second batch of uranium in its research plant this week on the same day that world powers delivered a negotiating offer to Tehran conditioned on its suspension of nuclear activities, according to a report released yesterday by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The timing of the nuclear work, which Western diplomats suggested was politically calculated, appeared to signal that Iran would fight to continue enriching uranium despite the demands by the international community.
"On the timing, knowing the Iranians, nothing is left to chance," said a European diplomat, who requested anonymity.
In an offer delivered to Tehran on Tuesday by European Union Foreign Minister Javier Solana, Iran would get a generous package of incentives, including trade and economic incentives and help building light-water reactors to provide electrical power, in exchange for giving up its enrichment work.
Iran reintroduced uranium gas into its centrifuges and started to process a new batch of raw uranium into UF6, the uranium gas that is the feedstock for enriched uranium.
There is no deadline for a response to the offer of incentives, but Western diplomats have said they expect Iran to answer in weeks, not months, and Iranian officials are preparing to work hard to win their position. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will meet next week with Chinese President Hu Jintao, whose government is one of six trying to strike a deal with Iran.
Diplomats and experts agree that nothing will be harder than finding a way to satisfy all the parties on the issue of enrichment. The Iranians have said repeatedly that they will not give up their rights under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to pursue nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.
"Uranium enrichment may be the sticking issue. ... How to deal with it is absolutely critical," said a senior diplomat in Vienna. "You have to find a face-saving formula for the Iranians and Americans."
Uranium enrichment is the process in which uranium gas is spun in centrifuges to purify it into fissile material, which can be used for civilian purposes or, if more highly purified, to make a bomb. Western countries believe Iran wants to build a bomb; the Iranians say that they only want the technology for peaceful purposes.
The report from the United Nations nuclear watchdog, which was sent to the organization's 35-member board of governors before its meeting next week, contained "nothing earth-shaking," said a senior U.N. official. However, it outlined a long list of questions that Iran has not answered about its nuclear program, which was clandestine for 18 years until it was divulged by an Iranian opposition group.
Alissa J. Rubin writes for the Los Angeles Times.