By NAZILA FATHI
TEHRAN - Iranian officials have hinted in recent days that they sped up their enrichment of uranium in the past year to put Iran in a better position to negotiate with the West.
In a rare admission, Sirous Nasseri, a member of Iran's negotiating team with three European countries over its nuclear program, was quoted Sunday in the daily newspaper Shargh as saying that Iran had mastered the nuclear fuel cycle since last year, when it came under international pressure to abandon its uranium enrichment program.
"We are in a better negotiating position for political work than last year," the daily quoted him as saying.
Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran's former ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, told students at Ferdowssi University in Mashhad on Wednesday that the government of President Muhammad Khatami had, for the first time, allocated money and facilities to make "advanced centrifuges" for uranium enrichment, Shargh also reported.
Iran has taken the position that its nuclear activities are for peaceful purposes, though it has pursued technology that could easily be converted to weapons production. The United States has accused Iran of secretly trying to make nuclear weapons and has urged its allies on the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear monitoring agency, to send Iran's case to the Security Council.
The agency opted for a gentler approach and issued a mildly worded resolution after Iran agreed in talks with the three European nations - France, Germany and Britain - to suspend its uranium enrichment activities. In return Iran expects rewards, including economic benefits, political and security cooperation with Europe and help with nuclear technology.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman said Sunday that Iran was not obliged to allow United Nations inspectors to visit military sites said to be involved in secret nuclear weapons work, but that it was willing to discuss the issue, Agence France-Presse reported.
"It is not a matter of unlimited commitments and unlimited inspections," said the spokesman, Hamid Reza Asefi. "We will act in accordance with" the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.
Despite statements by Iran's leaders that their nuclear program has wide public support, reaction among Iranians to the agreement to suspend nuclear activities has been muted.
Except for a protest outside the British Embassy in Tehran, for which about 200 members of a militia force were bused in, no noticeable protest has occurred.
Frustrated by more than two decades of isolation and eight years of war with Iraq, many Iranians indicate that they would rather avoid confrontation with other countries. They say their priorities are an improved economy and more political and social freedom.
"The government could spend the $12 billion it has spent over a nuclear program for development of the country," said Karim Bozorgmehr, 32, an English teacher. An analyst in Tehran, who had done surveys on the subject but who said he feared retaliation if his name was published, said a majority of people he approached viewed the government's nuclear ambition with skepticism, saying the government was seeking nuclear capacity as a deterrent and as a way to consolidate its power.
"The clerics want to get hold of the bomb to rule for another 50 years," said, Reza, 36, a civil servant, who, fearing retaliation, would agree to be identified by only his first name.
News of the United Nations agency's resolution last week helped Iran's economy, in which important sectors like real estate and the stock market had slumped over fears that the nuclear dispute could result in a military confrontation with Israel or the United States.
"People were in a wait-and-see situation," said Saeed Leylaz, a journalist and an analyst in Tehran. "The decline in the economy and the soaring unemployment led to discontent among people. Iranian society is not ready for any kind of confrontation, and this put pressure on the government to reach a deal with Europe."
Iran began its nuclear program before the Islamic revolution in 1979 with aid from the United States, Germany and France. But the world has been suspicious of the nuclear program of Iran's Islamic government.