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Nuclear Talks Resume as Iran Makes ‘Yellowcake’ Announcement

December 6, 2010 at 4:14 PM EST
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GWEN IFILL: Now to Iran, which resumed international talks today over its nuclear ambitions. But it came on the heels of a combative announcement.

Margaret Warner has the story.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: The vice president has received a report concerning the purchase of material to build nuclear weapons.

MARGARET WARNER: The material was yellow cake, lightly processed uranium ore. As the new movie “Fair Game” depicts in 2002, the Bush administration sent former Ambassador Joe Wilson, played by Sean Penn, to Africa to find out if Iraq had purchased the substance to build a nuclear weapon.

It turned out Iraq had no yellow cake and no nukes. But the term surfaced again yesterday in Iran. The head of the country’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, said Iran has now produced its own yellow cake from domestically mined uranium.

ALI AKBAR SALEHI, director, Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (through translator): This means that Iran has become self-sufficient in the entire fuel cycle, starting from the exploration, and then mining, and then turning it into yellow cake, and then into converting it into UF6, and then enriching it, and turning it into fuel plates or fuel pellets.

MARGARET WARNER: Iran says the yellow cake came from the Gachin uranium mine in the south, was sent to a conversion facility in Isfahan for processing, and will go to the Natanz enrichment plant. There, thousands of centrifuges could turn the ore into weapons-grade material.

An Obama National Security Council spokesman, noting that U.N. sanctions now ban Iran from importing the material, said the announcement calls into further question Iran’s intentions.

Paul Brannan and is a nuclear nonproliferation expert in Washington. He says Iran’s new newfound capacity to make homemade yellow cake is useful only for a covert purpose, not for generating energy.

PAUL BRANNAN, senior analyst, Institute for Science and International Security: The Gachin mine is not capable of fueling a nuclear power program in Iran. It is small enough to be useful in a parallel program to support making nuclear weapons. The small amount of uranium that is mined at the Gachin, it’s not under IAEA inspections. So, theoretically, Iran could take that material and then feed it into some parallel program.

MARGARET WARNER: Indeed, the announcement sounded a defiant note, as Iran, the U.S., and five other powers resumed talks in Geneva today for the first time in more than a year.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sounded her own note Friday at a security conference in Bahrain which Iran also attended.

“We do not object to the peaceful use of nuclear power for generating energy. Every country is entitled to that,” she said. “What we object to is a pursuit of nuclear weapons that can be used to threaten and intimidate their neighbors and beyond.”

The world powers reportedly plan to revive a proposal that Iran send most of its low-enriched uranium out of the country to be swapped for uranium enriched to levels suitable for civilian energy or medical use, but not weapons-making. In return, the U.N. would ease sanctions.

Diplomats at the Geneva talks today said today’s meeting began with the six powers detailing why they want Tehran to stop enriching its own uranium. The meeting comes after a week of dramatic developments. Last week in Tehran, bomb attacks killed one of the country’s top nuclear scientists and wounded another.

And Ahmadinejad appeared to acknowledge that a computer worm had infected centrifuges at the Natanz plant.

Last week also saw the WikiLeaks release of thousands of U.S. diplomatic documents.* They included cables reporting that Arab nations have urged U.S. military action to knock out Iran’s nuclear sites. In one, Saudi King Abdullah said Washington should cut off the head of the snake.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismissed the cables as an orchestrated American effort to stir trouble.

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, Iranian president (through translator): It looks like an intelligence and psychological war and has no legal value. Definitely, it won’t have the political impact in the way that they want. Such a game will have no effect in relations.

MARGARET WARNER: It remained unclear as to why Iran agreed to return to the Geneva talks. At a House hearing last week, Undersecretary of State William Burns said Tehran is feeling the bite of U.S. and international sanctions.

WILLIAM BURNS, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs: Iran may be losing as much as $50 billion to $60 billion overall in potential energy investments, along with the critical technology and know-how that comes with them.

MARGARET WARNER: But Ahmadinejad told supporters last week that his government will not make one iota of concessions.

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD (through translator): We wish they had not demanded talks now and would have waited for a couple of more months, so they would understand they cannot do a damned thing against the Iranian nation.

MARGARET WARNER: The Geneva talks are scheduled to last two days.

* Editor’s Note: Due to a technical error, this line was omitted from the original report.