Iran to consider compromise in nuclear talks


BERLIN -- In what appeared to be a sharp reversal of previous statements, a senior Iranian official said today that Iran would "seriously and enthusiastically" study a Russian proposal aimed at breaking the deadlock in international efforts to block Iranian nuclear development.

The official, Javad Vaeedi, deputy head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, was referring to a proposal made by Russia several weeks ago whereby Iranian uranium would be processed into fuel in Russia and re-exported to Iran, thereby enabling Iran to develop nuclear power without acquiring the enrichment technology that can also be used to produce nuclear weapons.

Only last week in Vienna, another Iranian official seemed to forcefully reject the Russian proposal, leaving it difficult to determine the country's true attitude.

That official, Mohammad Mehdi Akhonzadeh, the head of the Iranian delegation that has been conducting talks with British, German and French negotiators, said that Iran had told the Europeans to "act on the proposition that enrichment will be conducted inside" Iran. He said that any other option was "unacceptable" and "an insult."

Iran has on other occasions stated that it has the right to develop the technology to create nuclear fuel on its own territory.

Iran claims that its nuclear program, which it carried out clandestinely for 18 years before it was discovered by United Nations nuclear agency inspectors, is intended only to generate electrical power, but the United States and Europe believe the country's true goal is to develop nuclear weapons.

Vaeedi's more receptive statement yesterday was reported by the Iranian Student News Service, which has been used in the past by Iran's leaders to make policy declarations to the rest of the world. One interpretation of his remarks is that Iran - faced with the possibility that the Europeans will terminate the negotiation once and for all and refer Iran's violations of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty to the Security Council for a vote on sanctions - has decided the Russian proposal is an acceptable compromise.

But it seemed equally likely that Iran was not so much making a fundamental policy change as it was continuing the jockeying for international support it has carried out over the past several months.

"The trouble is that when they say they'll give it serious study, it doesn't mean they'll accept it," David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a nonpartisan research group that follows developments in Iran, said of Vaeedi's statement.

"Iran's problem is that just to turn down the Russian proposal adds a lot of support to those who want to bring the matter to the Security Council," Albright said.

The European negotiating effort, which has gained the backing of the United States, was suspended by the Europeans in August when Iran, breaking an agreement to suspend all uranium processing activities while the talks were under way, began converting uranium into gas at a production plant in Isfahan. Iran has vowed to continue that activity.

The conversion of uranium into gas is a major step in producing nuclear fuel. The next step would be the enrichment of the gas into material that can be used to generate electricity or to build a bomb; that is the stage of the process that Russia has offered to conduct on its soil.

Following the suspension of negotiations, the natural next move for the Europeans and the United States would have been to carry out a long-standing threat to refer Iran to the Security Council for sanctions. But the Western countries have hesitated to do that because of a likely veto by Russia and China, both of which have major commercial ties to Iran.

The European strategy since then has been to hold open the possibility of resuming negotiations, either to make real progress on the substance of Iran's nuclear program or to persuade Russia and China that everything has been done to give Iran an opportunity to come to an agreement and the only option remaining is sanctions.

Russia has been reported in recent weeks to be growing impatient with what it has come to see as Iranian intransigence. Russia also joined the European countries and the United States in harshly criticizing remarks by Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in which he has denied the Holocaust and said that Israel should be "wiped off the map."

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