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Iran warns halt to enrichment not on table in nuclear talks

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili leaves after a press conference, April 14, 2012, as Iran and six world powers open talks on Tehran's disputed nuclear program in Istanbul.
BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

(CBS/AP) TEHRAN, Iran - Iran's top nuclear negotiator said Thursday his country is seeking "cooperation" from world powers in next week's nuclear talks in Baghdad and warned against pressure by the West.

Saeed Jalili said the talks in the Iraqi capital have to recognize Iran's rights to a nuclear program, insisting Tehran will not yield to any "pressure strategy."

"Cooperation is what we can talk about in Baghdad," Jalili, Iran's nuclear negotiator with the West, said in comments broadcast on state television. "Talks based on the definite rights of the Iranian nation."

"Some say time is running out for the talks," he added. "I say time for the (West's) pressure strategy is running out."

The West suspects Iran is pursuing nuclear arms, and is trying to get Iran to halt its controversial nuclear enrichment, which is a potential pathway to atomic weapons.

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Tehran denies the charge and insists its program is for peaceful purposes, such as energy generation and cancer treatment.

CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer, covering the talks in Vienna, says in spite of the fierce rhetoric from both sides, there may be a very small space for a compromise palatable to both sides.

Four rounds of U.N. sanctions have failed to get Iran to halt the enrichment program, but the latest U.S. and European punitive measures, including an oil embargo and financial and banking sanctions, have severely limited Iran's ability to carry on economic transactions with the international community.

There is broad consensus, Palmer notes, that sanctions are hurting Iran, and that the Islamic Republic's leaders are privately keen to reach a deal - on paper, anyway (there remains huge skepticism over the likelihood of Iran actually following through on any promises it makes).

Jalili's remarks Thursday reinforce what Palmer says most participants in the talks already take for granted, that Iran is not willing to stop all uranium enrichment.

Palmer notes, however, that it is possible Iran will come to the Baghdad round of talks prepared to offer to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent - so called High Enriched Uranium - material which, while not usable in a weapons program, is also higher-grade than necessary for energy production. In exchange, they would likely ask for some of the major international sanctions to be lifted.

An agreement along those lines would be the first time the international community accepted Iran's enrichment of uranium at all, and would mean its main enrichment program - which produces 3 to 5 percent enriched uranium - would continue on a large scale with implicit permission.

Even if the Iranians agreed on paper to strict oversight of that enrichment by the IAEA, it is unclear if the U.S. or its European allies would be willing to accept such terms, given that five U.N. Security Council sanctions already call for a halt to all enrichment by Iran.

After talks in Istanbul last month, which both sides praised as positive, Iran and the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany are to hold the second round May 23 in Baghdad.

A few days after that, the U.N. atomic agency is to release its latest report card on Iran's nuclear efforts.

Jalili said he recently heard "some remarks from Western leaders" about keeping pressure on Iran and urged them not to repeat past mistakes in dealings with Tehran.

"I warn them to be careful and not to fall prey to such miscalculations," he added.

His remark is likely a response to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's comment earlier this month on the success of the sanctions.

"We don't believe Iran would be back at the negotiating table unless there had been the unrelenting pressure of international sanctions. And this pressure must stay on if we want to see progress toward a peaceful resolution," Clinton had said.