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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Iran suggests France enrich its Uranium

PARIS (AP)- A top Iranian nuclear official proposed Tuesday that France create a consortium to enrich Iran's uranium, saying that could satisfy international demands for outside oversight of Tehran's nuclear program.

Mohammad Saeedi, deputy chief of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, made the proposal in an interview with French radio in Tehran, suggesting that France's state-controlled nuclear company and one of its subsidiaries be partners in the consortium. He did not specify what form Iran's participation should take.

"To be able to arrive at a solution, we have just had an idea. We propose that France create a consortium for the production in Iran of enriched uranium," Saeedi told France-Info in the interview broadcast Tuesday.

"France, through the companies Eurodif and Areva, could control in a tangible way our enrichment activities," he added.

France is the world's most nuclear energy-dependent country, relying on atomic reactors for about 75 percent of its electricity, and it has several leading nuclear manufacturers, including state-controlled Areva.

Eurodif is a branch of Areva that was created in the 1970s by France with support from Belgium, Spain, Italy — and Iran.

A French Foreign Ministry spokesman would not comment on Saeedi's proposal. Speaking on customary condition of anonymity, he said "the important thing" for France is the result of talks between Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

The five permanent
U.N. Security Council members and Germany are in a standoff with Iran over its enrichment program, which Tehran insists is aimed at producing electricity but which many nations fear is aimed at making nuclear weapons.

Larijani was to hold talks Tuesday in Tehran with the head of Russia's Security Council. Immediate sanctions, favored by the U.S. and Britain, have been resisted by France, to some extent, and by Russia and China — both major commercial partners of Iran.

Georges Le Guelte, a nuclear expert at France's Institute for International and Strategic Research, called Saeedi's announcement "a diversion tactic."

He said the international community was unlikely to agree to such a deal because the enrichment would still take place on Iranian territory.

"This is something that would be almost as dangerous as leaving the Iranians to do it alone," he said. "The day that (Iran's president) thinks the international situation would permit, he will show Areva and Eurodif the door and say, 'Now I will take care of the plant.'"

There was no mention of the proposal in any Iranian media, and the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran declined to comment.

Areva spokesman Charles Hufnagel expressed surprise at Saeedi's announcement.

"We are not involved in any negotiations" about a possible consortium for enriching Iranian uranium, he said. He added that any discussions involving nuclear cooperation with Iran would be at the government level because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Hufnagel said it was too early to comment on whether Areva would be ready in principle to lead such a consortium.

Iran's participation in Eurodif was reduced after the 1979 revolution, and now Iran has a "purely financial" stake of about 11 percent through a joint French-Iranian company called Sofidif, Hufnagel said.

Eurodif's plant in Pierrelate in southeast France produces about a quarter of the world's enriched uranium, for use in nuclear reactors in several countries.

Tehran says it has 50 tons of UF-6 gas, which can be turned into enriched uranium, in Eurodif's plant in France but has not been allowed to use it.

Saeedi gave no other details of his proposal, and it was not clear when he made his comments to France-Info.

France, a veto-wielding member of the Security Council, is among countries pushing to stop Iran's nuclear activities.

Iran ignored a U.N. Security Council deadline in August to suspend uranium enrichment or face possible sanctions.

Saeedi's proposal echoed a similar idea involving Russia. Moscow had sought to defuse the dispute with Iran by offering to conduct all of Iran's enrichment on Russian soil, but Tehran has refused.

Russia is building the Islamic republic's first nuclear power plant in the southern port of Bushehr under an $800 million contract. Moscow says it has worked out a deal with Iran for all of Bushehr's spent fuel to be sent to Russia, eliminating the possibility that Iran could reprocess it for weapons.
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