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Iran Advances Nuclear Program While Welcoming Talks With U.S.

Ahmadinejad has often said Iran has a right to enrich uranium as part of its nuclear energy program, but the United States and its allies have warned that Iran is working toward creating a nuclear bomb. The United Nations has demanded Iran halt its uranium enrichment activities and has issued a series of economic sanctions on the country over its refusal to stop.

“The Iranian nation has always been for talks,” Ahmadinejad said during celebrations for Iran’s National Day of Nuclear Technology. But, he said “dialogue has to be based on justice and respecting rights. … Justice means both sides are treated equally and bilateral rights are respected.”

Asked about Ahmadinejad’s comments, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the United States was still waiting for a response from Iran, Reuters reported.

“We want to engage Iran and we … have said so very clearly and publicly, and so we wait for Iran to reciprocate,” said Wood.

“There are a lot of issues between us and we would like to move forward substantively and positively on them. It will be up to Iran whether it wants to engage with us,” he added.

Iranian officials announced several advances in its nuclear program, including an increase in the number of centrifuges at Iran’s uranium enrichment facility to 7,000, up from 6,000 announced in February, and that a new, more advanced type of centrifuge had been tested, reported the Associated Press.

Ahmadinejad also said the country has opened a facility to produce uranium fuel for a heavy-water nuclear reactor that is under construction in the town of Arak and is expected to be completed in 2009 or 2010.

The comments came a day after the United States said it would join Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia in talks with Iran over settling the nuclear issue. The State Department’s stance marked a shift in the Bush administration’s general policy to avoid direct talks with Iran.

Also Thursday, Wood repeated an appeal for Iran to free imprisoned U.S. journalist Roxana Saberi. The dual American-Iranian citizen was arrested in late January for working without press credentials.

Iran issued a new, more serious charge against her this week that said she was spying for the United States.

Wood called the new charges “baseless and without foundation.”

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