Russia's proposal to Iran contested

U.S. won't back plan to let Tehran make nuclear fuel

March 07, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

VIENNA, Austria -- A serious split emerged yesterday between Russia and the United States and Europe on Iran's nuclear program after the Russians floated a last-minute proposal to allow Iran to make small quantities of nuclear fuel, according to European officials.

The reports of the proposal prompted Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to call Mohamed ElBaradei, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency. According to an administration official who was briefed on the conversation, "she said the United States cannot support this."

Rice's call came after ElBaradei suggested to reporters that the standoff with Iran could be resolved in a week or so, apparently referring to the Russian proposal. Washington's strategy is to get past the meeting of the IAEA that opened yesterday and, under a resolution passed by the agency's board in February, have the issue turned over to the U.N. Security Council immediately. But officials clearly fear that the Russian proposal is intended to slow that process.

American officials said they had been assured by the Russians that there was no formal proposal on the table. The Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, was to have dinner last night in Washington with Rice and the national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, and he is scheduled to meet President Bush today in the Oval Office.

Under the Russian proposal, Iran would temporarily suspend all uranium enrichment activities at its facility at Natanz but would then be allowed to do what Russia describes as "limited research activities" in Iran's uranium enrichment program, said the European officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity under normal diplomatic rules.

Iran would have to agree to a moratorium on production of enriched uranium on an industrial scale for seven to nine years, ratify additional measures to let the nuclear agency conduct intrusive inspections of its nuclear facilities and create a joint venture with Russia on the production of enriched uranium on Russian soil, the officials said. The proposal, which has not been made public, spurred ElBaradei to give an upbeat assessment about a possible swift resolution of the impasse over Iran's program, an official familiar with his thinking said.

In a tonal shift, ElBaradei said Iran had made concessions on some issues. Calling Iran's activities at its uranium enrichment plant at Natanz "the sticking point," he added, "That issue is still being discussed this week, and I still hope that in the next week or so that agreement could still be reached."

In an interview last night, R. Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, said the administration would reject any proposal that did not require the Iranians to stop domestic nuclear enrichment and reprocessing activities. "The United States will not support any halfway measures," he said. "That means full suspension of all nuclear activities and a return to negotiations on that basis."

Rice told ElBaradei that Washington wanted to see Iran's case before the Security Council as soon as this week's agency board meeting was over; that the United States would seek a presidential statement, which does not carry the weight of a resolution, noting Iran's past failures to comply with its international commitments; and that Iran's case would then be sent back to the nuclear agency for further review, according to an official with knowledge of the conversation.

The Russian proposal is a reversal of its previous stance and seemed motivated by its determination to protect Iran from judgment by the Security Council.

Russia - and even China - had joined the United States and the Europeans in demanding that Iran resume a freeze of uranium enrichment activities at Natanz, reflecting mounting global suspicion that Iran's nuclear program was intended to produce weapons.

The Russian proposal surfaced late last week, when Sergei Kisliak, Russia's chief nuclear negotiator, presented it to the political directors of Britain, France and Germany.

He said Iran would have to resume full suspension of all enrichment-related activities, including what it calls its small-scale "research and development" while the agreement on the package was negotiated. Once there was an agreement, however, Iran would be allowed to conduct limited uranium enrichment research activities under a pilot program as agreed with the IAEA.

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