Iran to consider moving enrichment to Russia


MOSCOW – The spotlight on Tehran’s nuclear program shifts today to Moscow, where Iranian officials are to hold talks on a proposal to move their uranium enrichment to Russia in a bid to ease fears the Islamic republic will develop atomic weapons.

Iran said yesterday it will consider Moscow’s proposal if certain provisions are met, giving new hope for what is seen as an eleventh-hour chance to avert confrontation ahead of a crucial meeting of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, which could start a process leading to sanctions.

“At the moment there’s only one diplomatic door left open, and it’s open a crack,” said Rose Gottemoeller, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “So I think this set of talks on Monday is very important for the future of the diplomatic approach.”

For Russia, the talks are an opportunity to stave off the threat of action against a country in which it has strong interests and to win prestige by helping find a solution to a conflict in which it was long seen as part of the problem.

But the price would be high for Iran, at least in terms of pride: Giving up enrichment efforts at home, even temporarily, goes against its leaders’ adamant insistence on their right to conduct the process as part of what is a peaceful nuclear energy program.

Enrichment is a key process that can produce either fuel for a nuclear reactor or material for a warhead.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said yesterday that Tehran would consider the Russian proposal on uranium enrichment if certain provisions were met.

“If the Russian plan, with supplementary indicators, leads to a comprehensive proposal, then we could say it will have Iran’s interest,” Mottaki said yesterday, 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 was to meet with European officials.

An Iranian delegation headed by Ali Hosseinitash, deputy secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, was headed to Moscow for the talks there as diplomacy heated up ahead of a March 6 meeting of the IAEA, which could start a process leading to U.N. Security Council sanctions.

International concerns over Iran escalated when Tehran officially ended a voluntary freeze on enrichment and related activities last month and warned it would abandon an agreement allowing snap IAEA inspections after the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency decided this month to report it to the Security Council, which could impose sanctions.

There has been increasing dismay in Russia – which is building a nuclear power reactor in Iran and is a staunch supporter of Tehran’s right to peaceful atomic energy – about the actions and words of Iranian officials and their hedging, hot-and-cold response to the enrichment proposal.

After first indicating they had rejected the offer, Iranian officials said repeatedly that they were interested but that the proposal needed work and fell short of their needs. That left strong doubts that they would accept the basic premise of the offer: enrichment in Russia, not Iran.

Analysts have said Iran would like its scientists to have access to the facility in Russia where uranium would be enriched and hope to retain the right to conduct some part of the enrichment process at home.

The first option appears out of the question, because a presence in a sensitive part of the plant would defeat the purpose of the proposal. Vladimir Kuchinov, head of the Russian nuclear agency’s international relations department, said the facility would have no foreign access.

Anton Khlopkov, deputy director of the PIR Center think tank, said Russia could let Iran conduct uranium conversion – a precursor to enrichment – but the line would be drawn there.