Iran 'ready to discuss uranium enrichment proposal'

The head of Russia’s atomic energy agency today said Iran was ready for detailed discussions on the proposal to conduct Iran’s uranium enrichment in Russia.

The proposal, under which uranium would be enriched in Russia for use in Iranian reactors, is aimed at overcoming concerns that Iran could enrich its own uranium to higher levels for use in nuclear weapons.

The United States and the European Union have backed the Russian proposal as a way out of the deadlock over Iran’s nuclear programme.

International pressure on Iran has mounted sharply over the past two weeks since Iran removed United Nations-placed seals on its uranium-enrichment facility in Natanz.

Western countries are pushing for Iran to be referred to the UN Security Council over the matter, a move that could bring the imposition of sanctions. Russia and China have held back from that call, but the Kremlin is clearly distressed over Iran’s defiance of the international community.

Russia put the proposal forward last year, and Iranian response has been mixed, with some officials saying the enrichment must be done at home. However, Iranian Ambassador Gholamreza Ansari said in Moscow this week that “the Iranian government is looking attentively at the proposal, but it needs time.”

Iran “considers our proposal extremely interesting and is prepared for detailed discussions,” Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of the Russian atomic energy agency, told President Vladimir Putin in televised remarks today.

“Our Iranian partners should come here in the near future, and talks will take place constantly,” Kiriyenko said.

He did not give a specific date for the visit. But officials earlier have said an Iranian delegation is expected to travel to Russia for talks on the initiative around Feb. 16.

Also today, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov discussed the Iran nuclear dispute by telephone with British counterpart Jack Straw, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement that did not give further details.

Despite growing frustration with Tehran’s defiance of international concerns that it may be pursuing nuclear weapons, Moscow appears to be seeking to slow the pace of action against Iran and avert a Security Council vote on sanctions.

Russia has close ties with Tehran and is building the country’s first nuclear power reactor, but has been moving closer to the Western position on Iran and is reluctant to let the issue cause a major rift in its relations with the United States and Europe.

European Union diplomat Javier Solana said this week that Russia had proposed a delay in confronting Iran at the Security Council, suggesting that the council first hold less formal discussions instead of consideration based on referral by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog.

Today, the head of the international affairs committee of the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, warned that putting too much pressure on Iran could prompt Tehran to act like North Korea.

“Any possible repeat of the North Korean scenario, whereby excessive pressure from the United States caused ... (it) to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and cease its cooperation with the IAEA, would be highly undesirable. Such a possibility exists and, should it become a reality, the world would undoubtedly lose,” Kostantin Kosachyov was quoted as saying by the news agency Interfax.

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