- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 3, 2006

CAIRO — The United States is willing to consider setting up an international consortium to help Iran’s nuclear program, but Tehran must suspend enriching uranium before any discussions can take place, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday.

Miss Rice expressed skepticism about a new Iranian idea about French investment in its nuclear activities, saying it may be a stalling tactic to delay possible U.N. sanctions, which Washington is prepared to push for as early as next week.

“There is a consortium idea that the United States supports, which is the joint venture that Russia has proposed,” she said, adding that there cannot be enrichment and reprocessing activity on Iranian soil.

“The issue here is that Iran should not be in a position to acquire the technical expertise to enrich and reprocess, which is the most important step to knowing how to develop a nuclear weapon,” the secretary told reporters during a visit to Egypt.

The idea Iran floated yesterday would allow it to enrich uranium in its territory. Tehran faces sanctions if it does not agree to suspend such activity by the end of the week.

“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,” Mohammad Saeedi, deputy chief of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, told France Info radio.

“That way France, through the companies Eurodif and Areva, could control in a tangible way our enrichment activities,” he said, referring to a branch of a French state-controlled nuclear manufacturer created in part with Iranian backing in the 1970s.

Miss Rice, who is trying to build an anti-Iran coalition in the Middle East, raised the nuclear issue with foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan and six Persian Gulf countries last night. Diplomats said the Arab participants in the meeting chose only to listen to her and say nothing.

“If the Iranians have ideas about how to come to [an] agreement about what they may be able to do in a civil nuclear program, the way to propose this is to suspend enrichment and reprocessing … and then to come to the table with their ideas,” the secretary said.

“But I fear that this may instead … be a stalling technique because [they] don’t want to get to the basic issue, which is that Iran has to suspend its enrichment and reprocessing in order to begin negotiations,” she said.

French officials were skeptical about Tehran’s consortium proposal. Foreign Ministry spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei said in Paris that he was surprised by the idea, which he called “totally new for us.”

Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said the idea of a consortium has long been discussed in his talks with Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani.

“It’s an interesting thing, but it’s difficult to put it in place,” Mr. Solana said during a meeting of EU defense ministers in Finland.

R. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, told The Washington Times on Monday that the Bush administration is confident that Russia and China will join it in pushing for sanctions against Iran if it does not agree to suspend enriching uranium this week.

“For four months now, we’ve been waiting for an answer,” Mr. Burns said. “We’ve said, if they don’t suspend enrichment, we’ll take them to the Security Council and sanction them. We do believe we have Russian and Chinese support for that.”

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