WASHINGTON --President Bush and the Chinese government both declared their full support yesterday for a Russian proposal to allow Iran to operate civilian nuclear facilities as long as Russia and international nuclear inspectors are in full control of the fuel.
Bush's explicit public endorsement puts all of the major powers on record supporting the idea, even as most acknowledge that it is a significant concession to Iran and runs the risk that it will drag out the negotiations while continuing to produce nuclear material.
Yet officials say they believe it is the best face-saving strategy to pursue negotiations with Iran.
European and U.S. officials familiar with the details of the offer that Russia made to Iran say that Iran would continue to be allowed to operate its nuclear facility at Isfahan, which converts raw uranium into a form that is ready to be enriched.
That is a step both Europe and the United States said last year that they could not allow - and that was explicitly barred under the agreement between Iran and Europe in late 2004 because Iran could divert the uranium to secret enrichment facilities.
Iran began operating the Isfahan facility again in August.
Bush did not discuss the details of the Russian offer. But American, European and Russian officials, who like others discussing the issue spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to be seen as interfering in the negotiations, said the offer would allow Iran to continue operations at the plant that turns yellowcake, a concentrated form of uranium ore, into uranium hexafluoride, a toxic material that centrifuges spin into fuel for reactors or bombs.
Critics of that concession say it could send a signal to Iran that it no longer has to comply with all provisions of its November 2004 agreement with Europe.
"A red line was crossed" when Iran began producing uranium last fall, said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a nonpartisan research group that follows developments in Iran.
"The Iranians got away with reopening the conversion facility, and now people have accepted it's never going to be shut again and have taken it off the table."
Bush made his statement embracing the Russian idea at a news conference yesterday in which he declared: "The Iranians have said, `We want a weapon.'"
In fact, Iran has denied that it is pursuing a weapon, and in the afternoon, the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, acknowledged that Bush had misspoken.
"He was referring to their behavior," McClellan said by telephone later. "Our concern is their intention is to develop a nuclear weapon under the guise of a civilian program."
Nonetheless, Bush's slip could cement the perception among some members of the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency that he has decided, at least in his own mind, that Iran is intent on building a weapon as fast as it can, a situation he has said repeatedly he would not tolerate. Bush gave no hint yesterday that he was thinking of military action, instead saying, "We are working hard to continue the diplomacy necessary to send a focused message to the Iranian government, and that is: `Your desires for a weapon are unacceptable.'"
Bush's statement came at a moment of heightened concern in Vienna, Austria, home of the IAEA, that if the agency's board votes next week to send Iran's case to the U.N. Security Council, Iran might make good on its threat to limit cooperation with inspectors and begin full-scale enrichment of uranium.
North Korea threw out inspectors three years ago, and one senior American official said recently that "the Iranians have looked closely at that model."