March 07, 2006

Iran offers to suspend uranium enrichment

Iran offers to suspend uranium enrichment

Associated Press

Updated: Tue. Mar. 7 2006 11:37 PM ET

VIENNA, Austria — Iran is offering to suspend full-scale uranium enrichment for up to two years, a diplomat said Tuesday.

The proposal reflected Tehran's attempts to escape U.N. Security Council action over the activity, which can be used to make nuclear arms.

The diplomat told The Associated Press the offer was made Friday by chief Iranian negotiator Ali Larijani in Moscow in the context of contacts between Iran and Russia on moving Tehran's enrichment program to Russia.

The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because the information was confidential.

But Iran's envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency said his country was not prepared to freeze small-scale enrichment, a key demand of Moscow, Washington and the European Union, along with dozens of other nations.

"We've spent a lot on this," said the envoy, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, outside a 35-nation IAEA board meeting that is preparing to focus on Iran.

Moscow has become the sole negotiating partner of the Iranians in recent months.

Diplomats familiar with those talks said Moscow was insisting on a full enrichment freeze of up to eight years, including small-scale activity.

In exchange, Russian negotiators promised to float a post-suspension resumption of limited work with centrifuges and other components of an enrichment program in talks with senior U.S. and European officials.

But strong U.S. opposition appeared close to sinking that Russian initiative.

Some diplomats spoke of a European rift, with Germany considering the Russian approach.

But Herbert Honsowitz, the chief German representative to the IAEA, told the AP that was a misinterpretation, with the Germans only expressing "appreciation" to the Russians for trying to come up with new approaches to the deadlock on enrichment.

A European official, in Vienna for the IAEA meeting, said that ultimately the Russian plan would fail if the Americans opposed it.

The dispute, which surfaced in the last few days, was driving a wedge into joint international efforts to wean Iran of all enrichment activity by moving it to Russia, thereby reducing its potential for misuse by Tehran as a way of making nuclear arms.

The original Russian plan that surfaced last year, which is backed by the Americans and the European Union, would have stripped the Iranians of all enrichment potential.

But the proposal carried Monday to Washington by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov would allow the Iranians a yet-to-be-defined "research and development" capacity — including 20 uranium-enriching centrifuges.

The diplomats said IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei backed the plan. On Monday, he told reporters a deal on Iran's suspect nuclear program could be only a few days away, making U.N. Security Council action unneeded.

Although he did not elaborate, his optimism appeared linked to the Russian proposal on limited enrichment.

"I am still very much hopeful that in the next week an agreement could be reached," ElBaradei said.

The United States remained unconvinced. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said in Washington that "unless Iran does a dramatic about face," he expected the issue to be taken up by the Security Council.

Later, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned ElBaradei "to reiterate the U.S. position that Iran should cease all enrichment-related activity."

In response, ElBaradei agreed that Iran must not be allowed to have enrichment activity on its territory, said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not in position to speak for the IAEA.

There was no official IAEA response. But a diplomat familiar with ElBaradei's stance questioned the U.S. version of ElBaradei's position, saying the IAEA chief remained convinced there was no alternative to allowing Iran some enrichment activity as a way of reaching a deal.

The Russian proposal described by the diplomats would ask the IAEA to set the parameters of small-scale enrichment on Iranian soil to minimize the chances of abuse.

In return, Iran would be asked to recommit to in-depth IAEA probes of its program on short notice. Iran canceled such investigations last month after the IAEA's board put the U.N. Security Council on alert by passing on Iran's nuclear dossier.

France, Britain and Germany broke off negotiations on behalf of the European Union with Iran last year after it resumed enrichment-related activities, which can produce both nuclear fuel and the fissile core of warheads.

Since then, the Europeans as well as the United States, Canada, Australia and Japan have been at the forefront of efforts to have the U.N. Security Council take up the Iran issue.

All involved — whether or not they supported allowing Iran some control of enrichment — were firm on the need for Tehran to first return to a freeze of all such activities for a prolonged period.

The Vienna meeting is scheduled to hear a report by ElBaradei focusing on Iran's nuclear program, likely on Wednesday.

The last board meeting already had sent the complete Iran file to the Security Council.

This meeting is scheduled to pass the ElBaradei report on to the council, which then can decide whether to take action.

In Tehran, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for the IAEA to compensate Iran for suspending its nuclear activities in 2003, saying the halt has damaged the development of its "science, technology and economy," state television reported.

Ahmadinejad's claim that the IAEA had a debt to Iran appeared to be another bid to put pressure on the world body as it considers its report on Iran to the Security Council.

In a second thrust at the diplomatic maneuvering over Tehran's nuclear program, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said the United States wanted the Russian and European mediation efforts to fail.

"It is evident that the United States has no interest in Iran's reaching an agreement with either of its negotiating partners (Russia or Europe)," state television quoted Asefi as saying.

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