Friday, November 11, 2005

Iran to get new offer from West

International Herald Tribune:


By David E. Sanger The New York Times

WASHINGTON The Bush administration and three European governments have approved a new offer to be made to Iran in a last-ditch effort to head off a confrontation over its suspected nuclear weapons program. The proposal would permit Iran to conduct very limited nuclear activities on its own territory, but would move the process of enriching all of its uranium to Russia, U.S. and European officials said.

The proposal was discussed at length Tuesday during a meeting between the U.S. secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear monitoring agency, said officials who described their conversation.

ElBaradei, who won the Nobel Peace Prize this year, will take the proposal to Iran on behalf of Britain, France, Germany and the United States, the officials said. But a senior official deeply involved in developing the proposal said that "our expectations are low that the Iranians will accept."

The negotiations are being held in secret, and as the proposal has not yet been presented to the Iranians, the officials of various countries who discussed it would not agree to be identified.

Rice, the officials said, urged that Iran be given a deadline of two weeks for its response, before the atomic agency's board meets on Nov. 24.

Until recent days, U.S. officials had said that they planned to use that meeting to press the agency to take the next step on a September resolution declaring Iran guilty of "many failures and breaches of its obligations," in hopes of having the case referred to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions.

The September resolution passed 22 to 1, with only Venezuela voting in Iran's favor. But 12 countries abstained, including Russia and China.

The new proposal has deeply divided the Bush administration because it includes a significant concession: Iran would be permitted to continue the conversion of uranium into a gaseous form, known as UF6.

The gas alone cannot be used for bomb fuel. But it can be poured into centrifuges for enrichment, and the result is a form of uranium that can be used for nuclear reactors or, at higher levels, for weapons.

U.S. officials have accused Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons, but Iran has insisted that its nuclear program is intended entirely for peaceful purposes.

"The problem with this offer is that if the Iranians have a secret enrichment plant someplace that we don't know about, we're leaving them with the raw material they need," said a senior U.S. official who contends that the new proposal is flawed. "But the thinking was that the West has to show we are willing to break the logjam." When negotiations with the three European countries, which have played the leading role in direct negotiations with Iran, broke down this summer, Iran resumed converting its supplies of raw uranium into UF6, in violation of a "voluntary" agreement with the three countries.

Until Wednesday, those countries have said that the production of UF6 must be suspended before negotiations could resume.

The new proposal, officials from Europe and the United States said, is an effort to give Iran a face-saving way out of its tense standoff by arguing that it has retained what it contends is its right to enrich uranium as a signer of the international Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but has simply chosen to do so at facilities in another country.

According to officials briefed on the discussion between Rice and ElBaradei on Tuesday at the U.S. State Department, the two talked about letting Iran take a financial stake in an enrichment facility in Russia. Moscow is already Iran's main supplier of nuclear technology and has agreed to provide fuel for Iran's new reactor at Bushehr.

But under that accord, Russia has stipulated - under U.S. pressure - that it must take back all spent nuclear fuel from Iran, so that it cannot be converted to bomb-grade material.

The proposal on the uranium program, they said, would follow the same model: Russia and other countries would assure that the uranium shipped to Iran would not be usable in a weapon. All of the nuclear waste would also have to be shipped out of the country.

In a speech Tuesday in Washington, Alexander Rumyantsev, director of the Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency, reiterated Russia's eagerness to be the site of an international enrichment facility, though he did not discuss the specific proposal involving Iran.


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