MOSCOW -- A high-ranking Iranian official concluded two days of talks in Moscow yesterday, offering praise for a possible Russian compromise aimed at defusing the international dispute over his country's nuclear program but repeating that Iran might begin a large-scale effort to enrich uranium.
Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran's High Council of National Security, said his country is positive toward a Russian proposal to have uranium enriched in Russia, then returned to Iran for use in the country's reactors. The proposal is aimed at easing Western concerns that Iran might build nuclear weapons.
Larijani also repeated a warning that his government will start industrial-scale enrichment if the International Atomic Energy Agency sends Iran's case to the U.N. Security Council.
The 35-member IAEA board is scheduled to hold an emergency meeting in Vienna, Austria, on Feb. 2 to consider whether to send the issue to the Security Council, which could impose political and economic sanctions or delay while Moscow pursues a possible deal.
Russia and China, which Larijani is expected to visit today for meetings with top officials, are permanent members of the council and have expressed reservations about imposing sanctions.
Referral to the Security Council would have "a negative impact on peace and security in the region," Larijani, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, said during a Moscow news conference. "In this case, our activities will not be limited to research, and we'll begin industrial enrichment of uranium."
Iran's senior envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltaniyeh, was reported to have issued a similar warning in Vienna on Monday.
Iran has the ability to enrich small quantities of uranium as part of a research program, but it is not known to be capable of industrial-scale enrichment.
Uranium is enriched to make it usable in nuclear power plants, which Iran says is the goal of its efforts. A higher level of enrichment can produce material usable for nuclear bombs.
The United States and other Western governments suspect that the Iranian nuclear program is aimed at developing such weapons, not just for energy production.
Russia's proposal that it enrich Iran's uranium would take the most sensitive part of the fuel cycle out of Tehran's control while protecting its ability to produce nuclear energy.
Iranian officials initially rejected that plan but later said they were willing to reconsider, and Larijani was in Moscow partly to discuss that possibility.
"Our attitude to the proposal is positive," Larijani said at the news conference, according to the Russian news agency Interfax. "We tried to bring the positions of the two sides closer. The plan can be fine-tuned in the future during the talks due in February."
Russian officials have said that the next talks on the proposed Russian-Iranian joint venture will be held in mid-February, days after the IAEA emergency meeting.
Russian President Vladimir V. Putin discussed an expanded version of the idea in comments yesterday to reporters in St. Petersburg, urging the creation of an international center in Russia to provide nuclear fuel services to other countries, Interfax reported. Such a center would be supervised by the IAEA and would serve countries "without discrimination," Putin said.
Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the IAEA, endorsed such an idea during a visit to Moscow in October, arguing that the most effective way to stop the spread of nuclear weapons would be for the international community to guarantee a supply of nuclear fuel to countries that agree not to produce it themselves.
Such an approach could undercut the argument of countries such as Iran that acquiring the ability to produce nuclear fuel is the only way to protect a civilian energy industry from disruptions in supply, ElBaradei said.
David Holley writes for the Los Angeles Times.