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Sunday, February 26, 2006

Iran Says It Will Agree to Russian Enrichment Project

Washington Post: MOSCOW. Feb 26 -- The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization said Sunday that his country had agreed in principle to set up a joint uranium enrichment project with Russia, a potentially significant breakthrough in efforts to prevent an international confrontation over Iran's nuclear ambitions.

"Regarding this joint venture, we have reached a basic agreement," said Gholamreza Aghazadeh, the country's nuclear chief, speaking at a press conference with his Russian counterpart in Bushehr, where Russia is helping to build a nuclear power plant. "Talks to complete this package will continue in coming days in Russia."

Russia's offer to enrich uranium for Iran on Russian territory, a proposal backed by the United States and the European Union, has been the basis of intense but previously fruitless negotiations between the two countries. If Iran does agree to shift enrichment to Russia, Iran would cede control of a key element in the nuclear fuel cycle and ease suspicions that it could secretly produce uranium suitable for nuclear weapons.

A deal would also head-off punitive action by the U.N. Security Council after a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna on March 6. Aghazadeh made it clear, however, that there is still no formal agreement and some issues remain outstanding.

"There are different parts that need to be discussed," he said, according to Russian news agencies. "These are not just related to forming a company, there are other elements. There are political issues and the proposal should be seen as a package."

He went on to say that Iran has "set a precondition," which he declined to specify.

Russian analysts following the talks said Iran wants security guarantees that it would not be attacked by the United States.

The announcement followed two days of talks between Aghazadeh and Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of Russia's nuclear agency. Negotiations are expected to continue in Moscow in the next two or three days.

"I think there remain no organizational, technical or financial problems on the joint venture establishment," said Kiriyenko, but he added that "the international community must have guarantees of security and preservation of the nonproliferation regime."

Kiriyenko provided no specifics, including on key issues such as access to the Russian facility by Iranian scientists and whether or not Iran agreed that it would be permanently based in Russia.

An agreement, if one is reached and backed by the United States and the E.U., would be a significant boon for Russian diplomacy, which has been on the defensive because of Western concerns about the country's democratic direction and its alleged use of its energy resources to punish neighbors such as Ukraine. Russia is chairing meetings of the Group of Eight leading industrial democracies this year, and securing a deal with Iran would be a major boost to the country's desire to be seen as an essential and powerful partner.

More than two years of negotiations between Iran and an E.U. troika of Britain, France and Germany failed to produce an agreement. Russia, which has close financial and military ties with Iran, had much greater leverage, however, including stalling construction of the nuclear plant at Bushehr where Sunday's announcement was made.

In recent weeks Russia has been signaling its mounting frustration with Iran's stance and Russian lawmakers have said that sanctions might become unavoidable unless Iran yielded.

Aghazadeh said the decision to establish a uranium enrichment facility in Russia could be taken before the next IAEA meeting.

"We believe we can get an outcome that will be satisfying for the March 6 meeting," Aghazadeh said.

The board of the IAEA voted this month to report Iran to the Security Council, which has the power to impose sanctions, but with the understanding that no action would be taken until after the March 6 meeting. That was to allow more time for negotiations on the Russian proposal. Russia backed the vote to report Iran, but publicly at least has been reluctant to endorse sanctions.

Iran resumed small-scale uranium enrichment after the vote to report the country, and Russian officials said Iran would also have to agree to restore a moratorium on enrichment.

"The Russia side intends to discuss the issue of setting up a joint venture with Iran to enrich uranium only as a package with all other problems concerning the Iranian nuclear dossier," a source in the Russian delegation told the Russian news agency Interfax. "These problems include, among other things, the resumption of an enrichment moratorium by Iran."

Aghazadeh also said Sunday that Iran also planned to add two more power generating units at the Bushehr plant, and was now preparing tender documents.

"Russia will certainly be invited to bid in the tender," Aghazadeh said. "We will be waiting for [Russia's] offer."

Russia had delayed completion of the plant to signal its displeasure, officials said. But Sunday, Kiriyenko said both sides had agreed on a timetable to finish the plant and deliver nuclear fuel to the facility for a launch this fall.
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