Tuesday, April 24, 2007

From combined dispatches

ANKARA, Turkey — The United States and the European Union are willing to consider an Iranian proposal that would allow the country to keep some of its uranium-enrichment program intact instead of dismantling it diplomats said yesterday.

On the eve of talks in Ankara today between top Iranian nuclear envoy Ali Larijani and EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana officials familiar with the negotiations said the discussions, for the first time, could try to sidestep the deadlock over enrichment by trying to agree on a new definition of the term.

Iran’s defiance of a U.N. Security Council demand to freeze all activities linked to enrichment — a possible pathway to nuclear arms — has led to two sets of sanctions against the country. Although the punishments are limited and mild, they could be sharpened if the Islamic republic refuses to compromise.

Iran argues that the sanctions are illegal, pointing out that has the right to enrich to generate nuclear power under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). That, say Iranian officials, is the only purpose of their program, rejecting suspicions that they want to ultimately enrich to weapons-grade uranium for the fissile core of nuclear warheads.

In Washington, State Department officials declined to comment on the substance of the Ankara meeting but insisted that the U.S. position had not changed and that Iran must suspend all of its enrichment-related activities.

One official said statements by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad showed that Tehran is “feeling the pressure” of the international community.

“The planned Solana-Larijani meeting is not a negotiation as Iran has yet to create the conditions necessary for a negotiation by meeting its U.N. Security Council-mandated obligations to suspend its uranium-enrichment program,” the official said.

Last week, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack hinted that the United States might be open to redefining the meaning of “enrichment.”

He challenged Iran’s claim that it had begun “industrial-scale” uranium enrichment, meaning operating at least 3,000 centrifuges. He questioned whether the Iranians had begun introducing uranium-hexafluoride gas, known as UF6, into cascades in order to obtain enriched uranium.

“There is a question about for what purpose they might be introducing UF6 into the centrifuges cascade,” he said. “I’m not aware of their introducing UF6 specifically to get the end product of highly enriched or enriched uranium.”

Mr. McCormack said it was more likely that the gas was introduced into the centrifuges “basically to calibrate them and to test them for whether or not they are working.”

The United States and others say past suspicious nuclear activities, including a program that Tehran kept secret for nearly two decades, set Iran apart from others that have endorsed the NPT.

Mr. Solana and Mr. Larijani last met more than six months ago, and they foundered over the enrichment issue. Mr. Solana — representing the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — demanded that Iran dismantle not only fledging enrichment efforts but also all linked aspects, including assembling centrifuges to enrich and facilities to house such plants.

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