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Russia appears to remain united with U.S. on Iran nuclear issue

WASHINGTON—Russia appeared Tuesday to close ranks with the United States and Europe over Iran's nuclear program, after briefly promoting a plan that would have allowed Iran to conduct small-scale uranium enrichment research, which the Bush administration strongly opposes.

The move indicated that Russia would join the United States and the European Union in sending the impasse over Iran's uranium enrichment program to the U.N. Security Council, which can impose economic and political sanctions.

Russia had faced stiff U.S. and European opposition to its plan to allow Iran to conduct small-scale uranium enrichment work in return for postponing an industrial-size effort for up to nine years. Iran has threatened to start such a large effort if the issue goes to the Security Council.

"There is no compromise new Russian proposal," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asserted during a news conference with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice before a White House meeting with President Bush.

Enrichment produces low-enriched uranium for power plants and highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.

The 35-nation board of the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency voted Feb. 4 to send the issue to the Security Council. But it agreed to allow a month for a diplomatic resolution at the suggestion of Russia and China, which have hefty financial interests in oil-rich Iran.

The board was expected to wrap up a meeting at IAEA headquarters in Vienna, Austria, on Wednesday without reconsidering its decision, clearing the way for Security Council deliberations.

U.S. and European officials are demanding that Tehran abandon all enrichment activities because of suspicions that Iran is secretly developing a nuclear arsenal, a charge Iranian officials deny.

Lavrov said consultations that Russia has held recently with Iranian, European, U.S., Chinese and U.N. officials concerned only a Russian plan to form a joint venture with Iran to produce low-enriched uranium fuel in Russia for shipment to power plants in Iran.

But a U.S. official and a diplomat close to the IAEA, both of whom requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Russia had been informally promoting the compromise as a possible way to defuse the crisis.

"We haven't seen the presentation in writing," said the diplomat.

The U.S. official said Lavrov presented the idea to Rice at a dinner on Monday, but "disclaimed" that it was a Russian proposal.

Rice, he said, "made crystal clear" that the United States opposed such a plan, a stance she reiterated at the news conference.

"Enrichment ... on Iranian soil is not acceptable because of the proliferation risks," she said.

EU diplomats said France, Britain and Germany—which were spearheading negotiations with Iran—also opposed any plan that would allow Iran to conduct any enrichment work.

Iran insists it has the right to enrichment for peaceful purposes under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the basis of the global system to prevent the spread of nuclear arms.

The IAEA board of governors found that Iran had breached its treaty obligations by concealing its enrichment program for 18 years and failing to account for many activities, including purchases of weapons-related know-how from a Pakistani-led smuggling ring.

Vice President Dick Cheney warned Tuesday that the international community would "not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon" and "is prepared to impose meaningful consequences" on Tehran if it refuses to abandon its program.

"The United States is keeping all options on the table," Cheney told AIPAC, a pro-Israel lobbying group, in Washington.

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

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