TEHRAN, Iran – Iran said it would conditionally consider a Russian proposal on uranium enrichment being discussed Monday in Moscow, giving new hope for what is seen as the best chance for averting a confrontation with the West over Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Under the Russian proposal — which has U.S. and European backing — Iran's enrichment activities would take place on Russian soil to ensure no uranium is diverted for nuclear weapons. Enrichment is a key process that can produce either fuel for a nuclear reactor or material for a warhead.
"If the Russian plan, with supplementary indicators, leads to a comprehensive proposal, then we could say it will have Iran's interest," Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Sunday, according to the state news agency IRNA.
"The partners in the plan, the duration of the project, location of enrichment and consensus of all related parties would be significant to Iran," he said, before heading to Brussels, Belgium, where he will meet Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy representative and other European officials.
"If there is any plan from the European side about Iran's nuclear program, we will consider it as negotiable. I'm optimistic about negotiations with our European friends," Mottaki told reporters at the airport. "We are ready to listen to any new idea."
At the same time, an Iranian delegation headed by Ali Hosseinitash, deputy secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, is headed for Moscow for talks there Monday.
The new round of diplomacy came ahead of a March 5 meeting of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, which could start a process leading to punishment of Iran before the U.N. Security Council.
The talks are a new attempt to find a diplomatic solution over Iran's nuclear program after the confrontation was escalated earlier this month, when the International Atomic Energy Agency board of governors, including Russia, reported Iran to the Security Council and called on its government to suspend all enrichment-related activities.
In response, Iran suspended certain aspects of its cooperation with the IAEA — including allowing surprise inspections of its nuclear facilities — and confirmed it has resumed small-scale uranium enrichment.
The United States and some in Europe accuse Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons. Iran denies the accusation, saying its program aims only to produce energy, but has insisted on its right to conduct enrichment. issue.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said last week that the Russian proposal is conditional on Iran giving up all enrichment activity, including small-scale efforts it started last week. The European Union and the United States also insist that Tehran re-impose a freeze on all enrichment.
But IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei has recently suggested that the international community might have no choice but to accept small-scale enrichment on Iranian soil as a condition for Tehran to agree to move its full program abroad, a diplomat familiar with ElBaradei's thinking said Sunday.
A compromise could entail allowing Iran enrichment experiments involving a pilot plant of less than 200 centrifuges — far less than the thousands needed for a full enrichment program, the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the
Arab countries in the Gulf — which have been stepping cautiously, worried both about angering Iran and about the possibility of its nuclear program tipping the balance of power in the region — urged dialogue in resolving the standoff.
The Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional body, "believes that using nuclear power for peaceful purposes is legitimate, but anything else is fraught with many dangers," GCC Secretary-General Abdul Rahman al-Attiyah said.
"GCC members believe that the language of diplomatic dialogue concerning the Iranian nuclear issue should prevail over any other," he said, according to the state-owned Kuwait News Agency.
Iran's talks this week with Russia, a close ally that has helped it build its first nuclear reactor at Bushehr, could prove key.
After the talks Monday in Moscow, the head of Russia's nuclear energy agency, Sergei Kiriyenko, will begin a three-day visit to Iran on Thursday, meeting with Iranian Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh, who is also the head of Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.
In an apparent overture Thursday, Tehran's top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani raised the prospect of reopening its program to IAEA inspections and said Iran could use centrifuges that would limit the degree of uranium enrichment to the level needed for nuclear power — far lower than for weapons.