December 28, 2005

Iran sounds positive note on Russian atomic plan

By Paul Hughes

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran said on Wednesday it would
"seriously and enthusiastically" study a Russian proposal aimed
at reducing international fears about its nuclear programme,
the ISNA students news agency reported.

The remarks by Javad Vaeedi, deputy head of Iran's Supreme
National Security Council, were the most positive yet by a
senior Tehran official about Moscow's offer to form a joint
venture with Iran to enrich uranium in Russia.

The Russian proposal is backed by the United States and the
European Union.

It is aimed at easing international concerns that Tehran
could make atomic bombs from highly enriched uranium, after
having concealed a nuclear programme from U.N. inspectors for
18 years until 2003.

Iran says it only wants to purify uranium to a lower grade
suitable for use in power stations.

The Russian proposal "will be reviewed seriously and
enthusiastically," Vaeedi told ISNA.

"The Russian proposal could revive some of the
unimplemented regulations of the nuclear Non-Proliferation
Treaty for transferring nuclear technology to countries which
do not have access to this technology, and break the scientific
monopoly of this issue."

Face-to-face talks between Iran and the "EU3" -- Britain,
Germany and France -- on a diplomatic solution to growing
tensions over Tehran's nuclear ambitions resumed in Vienna this
month after a four-month freeze, and are to resume in January.

Previously, Iran poured cold water on the Russian proposal,
saying it would not accept any plan which did not allow it to
carry out a full nuclear fuel cycle, including enrichment, on
its own soil.

But EU diplomats and arms control experts have noted that
Tehran has stopped short of outright rejection of the plan,
which could weaken Russian opposition to EU and U.S. efforts to
refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions.

They say Iran may be willing to drag out talks about the
Russian proposal to buy time and good favor.

Told of Vaeedi's remarks, an EU3 diplomat said they did not
sound like any breakthrough in the making.

"He seems to see the offer as a chance for Iranian
scientists to go to a third country to learn something. That's
not our intention -- to transfer know-how on the sensitive
stages of enrichment to Iran. Our idea is to meet Iran's
commercial energy needs," said the diplomat, asking for
anonymity because he is not authorised to speak to the media.

U.S. and EU officials hope that having Iranian uranium
enriched in Russia would minimise the chance of diversions for
development of weapons-grade material.

"Iran may be trying to buy time since they know it would be
counterproductive to reject Russia's offer outright before
January 18," the EU diplomat said, mentioning the mooted date
for the next round of talks.

"Iran may come to the next talks with a modified proposal
for a joint venture in Iran, with a Russian role."

Striking a softer tone than other Iranian officials
recently, Vaeedi said the Russian proposal could be studied in
the framework of an existing agreement with Moscow on supply of
enriched uranium for Iran's first atomic reactor at Bushehr,
due to come onstream in late 2006.

"The new proposal could be studied and its economic,
technical and scientific dimensions clarified. The amount of
participation of the Iranian side in this plan will be an
important indicator," he said.

"Whatever meaning the Russian proposal has, it does not
mean depriving Iran of its rights."

(additional reporting by Mark Heinrich in Vienna)