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Iran, U.S. question Russian compromise plan

WASHINGTON—The United States and Iran on Friday separately expressed deep reservations about a Russian compromise aimed at defusing the international crisis over Iran's nuclear program.

The diminished prospects for the plan made it nearly certain that the United States and the European Union would prevail next week in having the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency's board of governors send the matter to the U.N. Security Council.

"There is every reason to believe there is going to be a vote on Feb. 2, and there is already a majority of countries assembled to vote positively," Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said Friday.

Reporting Iran to the Security Council, which has the power to impose economic sanctions, could worsen the crisis. Iran has promised to retaliate with steps that could set it on a course toward full-scale uranium enrichment and drive world oil prices higher.

U.S. and European officials, however, have made it clear that they would seek sanctions only as a last resort should Iran persist in defying demands to fully disclose to the IAEA, a U.N. watchdog agency, all aspects of its nuclear program.

The United States and Europe agreed to seek the IAEA vote after Iran ended a 26-month freeze on work on uranium enrichment in defiance of international warnings. The enrichment process can produce fuel for power plants or for nuclear weapons.

The United States and European countries are concerned that Iran is secretly developing nuclear weapons, partly because Iran has admitted hiding the project from IAEA monitoring for 18 years. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

Under the Russian plan, uranium hexafluoride gas made at a plant in the Iranian city of Isfahan would be sent to Russia for enrichment into low enriched uranium that would be shipped back to Iranian power plants under IAEA monitoring.

The idea is aimed at denying Iran the full infrastructure to produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.

At the same time, allowing Iran to make uranium hexafluoride gas would be a concession to Iran's claim that it has the right to peaceful nuclear technology as a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the key global pact to prevent the spread of nuclear arms.

Iran's top negotiator this week visited Moscow and Beijing, both of which have resisted the IAEA vote, in a bid to convince them that he saw enough promise in the plan to justify their calls for further negotiations.

On Wednesday, President Bush also seemed to give the plan a nudge, saying he supported it as "an acceptable alternative."

But Ali Larijani, the top Iranian negotiator, said on returning to Tehran on Friday that the plan would not meet Iran's energy needs and required changes, which he did not spell out.

"It should be considered along with other proposed schemes, given that it cannot be dismissed as negative," Larijani, secretary of the powerful Supreme National Security Council, was quoted as saying by the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency.

"We believe the proposal can be revised to become more complete," he said.

The Russian plan, however, has been on the table for months, and Iran originally rejected it. U.S. officials regard Tehran's newly professed willingness to discuss the proposal as a stalling tactic.

"We don't see Iran responding to the Russian proposal ... or to any other proposal," said Burns.

Burns sounded a more sober view of the Russian plan than Bush did a day earlier, saying the United States found it "interesting."

"We've said that we believe that this counterproposal has promise, but we've never blessed every article," he said.

Specifically, Burns said the United States opposed the operation of the Isfahan uranium hexafluoride plant. Iran restarted the facility last summer in violation of an accord to keep it off-line while in negotiations on its nuclear program with Britain, France and Germany.

"We don't believe that Iran should have the ability to exercise any process along the nuclear fuel cycle inside Iran itself," Burns said.

U.S. officials have also rejected an Iranian demand that it be allowed to continue operating a pilot enrichment plant at a research facility in Natanz.

Burns indicated that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was not interested in pursuing the Russian plan with her British, French, German, Russian and Chinese counterparts in talks Monday on the sidelines of a conference on Afghanistan in London.

Burns also ruled out any contacts between the U.S. and Iranian delegations to the conference on Afghanistan.

"I do not anticipate, and I'm 100 percent sure about this, any contact between whichever official is sent by the Iranian government and our delegation, including Secretary Rice," he said.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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