Reuters: Russia has offered to let Iran do some atomic research if it refrains from enriching uranium on an industrial scale for 7 to 9 years, diplomats said on Tuesday, cracking big-power unity on how to stop Tehran getting the bomb. By Mark Heinrich
VIENNA (Reuters) – Russia has offered to let Iran do some atomic research if it refrains from enriching uranium on an industrial scale for 7 to 9 years, diplomats said on Tuesday, cracking big-power unity on how to stop Tehran getting the bomb.
Iran reacted coolly, with one diplomat saying Tehran could accept a two-year moratorium on industrial atomic fuel production, but not longer, in exchange for centrifuge research.
And he said Iran’s idea of research entailed running nearly 3,000 enrichment centrifuges, which the West would consider industrial-scale and could yield highly enriched uranium sufficient for one nuclear bomb per year.
Washington rejected any concession to let Iran feed uranium gas into a small cascade, or chain, of centrifuges, saying it would inevitably give Tehran the know-how to make warheads.
Britain, Germany and France agreed with its U.S. ally, diplomats from the EU trio said, and Berlin’s IAEA ambassador said reports that Germany was amenable to the idea were wrong.
Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency, alluded to Moscow’s formula when he held out hope on Monday for a deal soon to defuse the crisis without U.N. Security Council intervention against Iran. A council debate on Iran looms after an IAEA board meeting now in its second day.
“Any moratorium of more than two years and any suspension of nuclear research activities (as the West demands) will make it difficult to reach a deal. The face-saving solution is to enrich uranium on a limited scale … during the two years,” he said.
Iran says its nuclear programme aims solely at generating electricity. But it concealed atomic research from the IAEA for 18 years and its calls for Israel’s destruction alarm the West.
“Russia has circulated a proposal to the (EU and U.S.) capitals that would let Iran conduct limited enrichment research if it suspends industrial-scale efforts for 7 to 9 years,” said a diplomat from one of the three EU powers.
He said the plan, still exploratory and only verbal, would also require Tehran to ratify a protocol allowing snap IAEA inspections of its atomic sites and accept a joint venture under which Russia would supply Tehran with low-enriched uranium.
Like other officials, he asked not to be identified in exchange for divulging details of the diplomatic manoeuvring.
Russian diplomats were expected to meet experts in the IAEA’s secretariat later this week to get a technical assessment as to what level of nuclear research in Iran could be “safe” from the risk of diversion into a military programme, he said.
Asked about the reports, a spokesman at Russia’s Foreign Ministry said it “needs more time” before it could comment.
BRIDGING IRAN-EU GAP
Moscow’s reported package looked like an effort to bridge a gap between Iran’s previously expressed readiness to defer any firing up of thousands of centrifuges for up to two years and the EU trio’s demand for a 10-year moratorium on all enrichment.
The diplomat close to Iran’s negotiations said Tehran could discuss “more intensive monitoring” of research activities with the IAEA within the framework of a deal with Russia.
But Washington again ruled out letting Iran pursue any atomic fuel development and predicted the Security Council would tackle Iran’s case, barring a sudden Iranian change of heart.
Russian and U.S. officials expected a frank airing of differences on Iran when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meets U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice later on Tuesday.
“You can’t have the regime pursuing enrichment on any scale,” said State Department spokesman Tom Casey, “because pursuing (that) allows them to master the technology, complete the fuel cycle — and then that technology can easily be applied to a clandestine program for assembling nuclear weapons.”
But diplomats said Russia and ElBaradei see the gesture as a way to restrain Iranian hardliners who say a disgruntled Iran might quit the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
In defying calls to halt all enrichment-related work, Iran seems to be counting on divisions in the Security Council over whether to resort to sanctions mooted by the United States.
While Moscow and Beijing also do not want Iran to acquire atom bomb technology, they want to protect big trade stakes with Tehran and could use their council vetoes to block sanctions.
U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said Washington, might try to get EU allies and others join it in non-U.N. travel and financial sanctions on Iran if Tehran proved obdurate.
Herbert Honsowitz, Germany’s ambassador to the IAEA, denied reports Berlin was warming to Russia’s offer. “We have not accepted it or considered it in any way,” he told Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Vienna and Parinoosh Arami in Tehran)