BERLIN—The European Union offered Monday to help Iran obtain the most advanced civilian nuclear technology if Iran halted work on uranium enrichment, a process that produces fuel for power plants and nuclear weapons.
The White House said it supported such an initiative, but the hard-line regime in Tehran showed no sign that it was ready to accept any plan requiring it to relinquish what it contends is its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes.
U.S. and European officials believe Iran is secretly developing nuclear weapons under the cover of its civilian program, and they insist that no enrichment take place on Iranian territory to ensure that Tehran can't make nuclear weapons.
EU foreign ministers met in Brussels, Belgium, to consider a plan to reward Iran with expanded political and economic cooperation in return for suspending uranium enrichment and halting construction of a heavy water reactor, a device that produces large amounts of plutonium, which also can be used in nuclear weapons.
In a statement after their meeting, the foreign ministers said that the EU also would support "Iran's development of a safe, sustainable and proliferation-proof civilian nuclear program, if international concerns were fully addressed and confidence in Iran's intentions established. The EU hopes that Iran will not fail to take up such an offer."
EU officials declined to disclose further details of the plan, which is a beefed-up version of an offer made last August that Iran's theocratic regime quickly dismissed.
Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, told reporters that the new initiative would give Iran access to the most advanced civilian nuclear technology.
"If they want to construct a nuclear energy power plant, they would have, in cooperation with the European Union and other members of the international community, the best and most sophisticated technology," he said. "If they reject that, it would mean that what they want is something different."
A U.S. official in Washington, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk publicly, said the main difference between the August plan and the new one would be a proposal for the creation of an international consortium to construct civilian nuclear power plants in Iran.
The consortium, in which European, Russian and other companies could participate, also would supply Iran with low-enriched uranium to power the reactors and would take back and reprocess the spent fuel, he said.
The idea expands on a Russian plan for the creation of a joint Iranian-Russian enterprise to enrich uranium for Iranian plants on Russian soil.
The statement made no mention of sanctions if Iran refuses to give up enrichment. Sanctions being drafted by the EU would spare ordinary Iranians, but target senior government officials with travel bans, freezes on foreign bank accounts and other measures. Russia and China oppose sanctions or military action.
The EU plan is to be hammered out for a meeting in London on Friday of senior diplomats from the five veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council: the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain.
A White House official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said, "The United States does not oppose (EU) cooperation with Iran in civilian nuclear technology once Iran has provided objective guarantees that its program will be solely for peaceful purposes."
"Objective guarantees" is diplomatic jargon for Iran's agreement to forgo all enrichment work on its territory.
Iran, the world's fourth-largest petroleum producer, claims it requires nuclear power plants to meet the energy needs of its expanding population.
It admitted hiding its nuclear program from U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors for 18 years and purchasing materials and technology, including bomb-related know-how, from a Pakistani-led smuggling ring.
The EU foreign ministers noted that Iran has failed to answer numerous IAEA questions and ignored calls by the agency and the Security Council to suspend its enrichment work.
Iran claims to have succeeded in enriching uranium to a level sufficient to run a power plant. Highly enriched uranium, the fuel for nuclear weapons, requires processing over a much longer period or with a much larger processing facility.
(Landay reported from Washington, Schofield from Berlin.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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