By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 24, 2009; A01
UNITED NATIONS, Sept. 23 -- Iran is willing to have its nuclear experts meet with scientists from the United States and other world powers as a confidence-building measure aimed at resolving concerns about Tehran's nuclear program, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Wednesday.
At international talks next week on its nuclear ambitions, Iran also will seek to buy from the United States enriched uranium needed for medical purposes, Ahmadinejad told reporters and editors from The Washington Post and Newsweek. Agreement by the Americans, he suggested, would demonstrate that the Obama administration is serious about engagement, while rejection might give Iran an excuse to further enrich its stock of uranium.
"These nuclear materials we are seeking to purchase are for medicinal purposes. . . . It is a humanitarian issue," Ahmadinejad said in the interview. "I think this is a very solid proposal which gives a good opportunity for a start" to build trust between the two countries and "engage in cooperation."
Nuclear research reactors are used to create radioactive isotopes for the diagnosis and treatment of diseases. The Iranian president said that about 20 medical products are created at a reactor in Tehran but that more fuel is needed.
Ahmadinejad made his proposal against the backdrop of increasingly urgent efforts by the United States and other major powers to prod Iran to fully disclose its nuclear program or face stricter sanctions. On the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Wednesday discussed the possibility of what Obama called "serious, additional sanctions," while France's president, Nicolas Sarkozy, told French television that the "dialogue is achieving nothing. There will be a timeline, a date limit. In my mind, it's the month of December."
Medvedev, echoing a statement he made last week, said: "Russia's position is simple: Sanctions are seldom productive, but they are sometimes inevitable."
On Oct. 1, a senior Iranian diplomat will meet counterparts from the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany in Geneva to discuss the nuclear program, and Ahmadinejad said he will bring the new proposal. In a meeting Wednesday evening at the United Nations, foreign ministers and senior officials from the six countries met to plot strategy for the session.
"We expect a serious response from Iran" and will decide on "next steps" if it is not forthcoming, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said in a statement approved by the six nations.
Obama singled out Iran and North Korea as nuclear outliers in his speech before the General Assembly on Wednesday. "If they are oblivious to the dangers of escalating nuclear arms races in both East Asia and the Middle East, then they must be held accountable," he said as Ahmadinejad sat in the fifth row of the chamber. "The world must stand together to demonstrate that international law is not an empty promise, and that treaties will be enforced. We must insist that the future does not belong to fear."
Iran's medical reactor was supplied by the United States during the shah's rule. But according to David Albright, a former weapons inspector who is president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, Iran received additional uranium only from Argentina after the 1979 revolution. Argentina cut off those supplies sometime in the 1980s.
Albright said Iran's latest move is "clever" because there is "implied blackmail" behind the idea. If the material is not supplied, Iran could announce that it has no choice but to make the material, which is nearly 20 percent enriched; the material Iran is now producing is 3 to 5 percent enriched and suitable only for energy purposes. Allowing Iran to purchase the new material would require a waiver of international sanctions.
While weapons-grade material is more than 90 percent enriched, making material for the medical reactor could put Iran on the next step to reaching that level.
Albright said the proposal to make Iran's nuclear experts available to answer questions from international scientists is also potentially significant because Iran has not previously allowed such a meeting, even in an unofficial setting.
U.S. officials declined to comment on the proposal. The Iranian president did not mention the proposal during a speech to the General Assembly on Wednesday night; instead, he spent much of the address ranting against Israel and capitalism. Many diplomats, including those from the United States, left the chamber.
In the one-hour interview, Ahmadinejad appeared relaxed and confident, frequently bantering with and challenging the interviewers as he spoke through an interpreter. He also talked in detail about various technical reports on Iran's nuclear programs by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
He insisted that Iran has no interest in acquiring nuclear weapons but did not directly answer whether his government would pledge never to acquire them. "We fundamentally believe nuclear bombs are the wrong thing to have," he said.
He also asserted that the attention focused on Iran's uranium enrichment is misplaced, because, he said, it is only for electricity and cannot be used for bombs. "Don't you think it is hilarious to say that it is potentially dangerous for Iran to possess one nuclear warhead for the whole world, but that the fact that the United States possesses 10,000 of them poses no threat whatsoever?" he jibed.
Ahmadinejad expressed some hope for a change in relations with the United States with the election of Obama, but he warned that the new administration should not simply repackage old proposals with new language.
"Cosmetic or superficial changes will not be able to resolve any of the problems we face today. It will only complicate them," he said.
"We hope Mr. Obama is seeking real change," he added. "We are of the belief that if he decides he will at least be able to change at least a segment of the changes he had his mind set on. And we are willing to help bring about those changes."
At that point in the interview, Ahmadinejad announced Iran's readiness to purchase nuclear material from the United States and to have its nuclear experts hash out issues with other experts. "Why not just let them sit and talk and see what kind of capacity they can build? I think it is good thing to happen," he said.
When the subject turned to the war in Afghanistan, Ahmadinejad seemed almost to gloat about the dilemma facing the United States.
"Everyone knows that NATO is close to final defeat in Afghanistan," he said. "We could just stay silent about it and be an onlooker because at the end of the day, some NATO states happen to be our enemies. So we can be happy they are getting defeated there. But we are not happy. It saddens us."
But, he said, "we are ready to assist, provided, though, that the policies being pursued change. . . . Afghanistan does not have a military solution to it."
Ahmadinejad expounded at some length about the sad history of foreign invaders in Afghanistan. When it was pointed out to him that more than 3,000 people died in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he shrugged.
"Have they managed to sort of reappear and be alive again after the crimes that were carried out in Afghanistan?" he said. "Not only that, but tens of thousands after have been killed as a result. You cannot wash blood with blood."
Staff writer Colum Lynch contributed to this report.