* Iran: no higher-grade enrichment halt due to external
* EU responds that Iran must address international concerns
* No direct US-Iran talks unless pressure eases -foreign
DUBAI, Dec 18 (Reuters) - Iran will not stop higher-grade
uranium enrichment in response to external demands, its top
nuclear energy official was quoted as saying on Tuesday,
signalling a tough bargaining stance ahead of planned new talks
with world powers.
The West wants Iran to halt enrichment of uranium to a
fissile concentration of 20 percent as it represents a
significant step closer to the level that would be required to
make nuclear bombs. Iran says it needs this higher-grade uranium
to run its medical research reactor in Tehran.
Israel has threatened air strikes on Iran if its nuclear
work is not curbed through diplomacy or sanctions, raising the
spectre of a Middle East war damaging to the global economy.
Iran "will not suspend 20 percent uranium enrichment because
of the demands of others," said Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, head of
Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation, the Iranian Students' News
Agency (ISNA) reported.
Iran "will produce 20 percent enriched uranium to meet its
needs and for however long it is required."
He did not specify what he meant by "needs". Western
diplomats say Iran already has made sufficient amounts to fuel
its Tehran Research Reactor for several years. Abbasi-Davani has
in the past said Iran plans to build another research reactor.
The European Union quickly responded to Abbasi-Davani's
comments, saying Iran must come to grips with increasing
international disquiet over the ultimate purpose of its uranium
enrichment programme to resolve the protracted dispute.
"Iran has to address the immediate key concern, which is the
issue of 20 percent enrichment, by taking an initial
comprehensive confidence-building step in this area, thereby
creating space for more diplomacy and negotiations," the
spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said.
In his statements, Abbasi-Davani signalled renewed Iranian
defiance in negotiations with world powers expected to resume
soon. But he did not appear to categorically rule out that
Tehran at some point could shelve higher-grade enrichment.
The powers - the United States, France, Britain, Germany,
China and Rusia - also want Iran to shut down the Fordow
underground site where its 20 percent enrichment is carried out.
Nuclear expert Mark Fitzpatrick, of the International
Institute for Strategic Studies, said about Abbasi-Davani's
comments: "This hard line doesn't bode well for success in the
next round of talks, where stopping the 20 percent enrichment is
just one of the steps Iran will be asked to take."
BEHIND THE SCENES
But others suggested Abbasi-Davani's comments, and those of
other Iranian officials, were intended more for public
consumption at home and abroad.
Iranian foreign and security policies are ultimately decided
by clerical Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
"What matters is not stay-the-course statements like these
but whether behind the scenes the Supreme Leader and his
entourage, and the Obama White House, step out of their shadow
and agree to direct bilateral talks," Mark Hibbs, of the
Carnegie Endowment think tank, said.
Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said
Iranian and EU officials had held discussions regarding the time
and place of the next negotiations between the powers and Iran.
"If there is an agreement, it will be announced,"
Mehmanparast said in his weekly news conference.
The EU spokesman said the six powers are still waiting for
an Iranian answer regarding a possible date for new talks: "We
made contact last week and suggested getting together for
another round. We are waiting to hear the response."
Though Israel has threatened to bomb Iranian nuclear sites,
Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon said the Jewish state had
noticed renewed U.S.-led efforts to curb Iran's nuclear work
since President Barack Obama's re-election last month, including
preparation for possible military action.
He also cited contacts among the powers and Iran about
holding new negotiations and ongoing sanctions against Iran.
Iranian media quoted Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi as
saying that any calls for direct talks between the U.S. and Iran
were meaningless as long as Washington continued to exert
pressure on Iran through sanctions and other measures.
In October, the New York Times reported that secret
exchanges between U.S. and Iranian officials had yielded
agreement "in principle" to hold one-on-one talks. Both Iran and
the United States denied that the two countries had scheduled
direct bilateral negotiations on the nuclear programme.