U.N. Agency Revisits Iran's Nuclear Ambitions

The International Atomic Energy Agency holds more talks on Iran's nuclear program Thursday in Vienna. The meeting is likely to focus on a Russian plan aimed at resolving the impasse between the West and Tehran. It allows nuclear power in Iran — but not the acquisition of nuclear weapons.

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Iran says it's expecting more talks with the Europeans about its nuclear activities in the coming weeks. Negotiations would resume sometime after tomorrow's meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. Iran's nuclear program will also be on the agenda at that meeting. Under heavy US pressure in September, the IAEA took a step towards referring the matter to the UN Security Council, which has the power to impose economic sanctions. But for the moment, that action has been put off. Diplomats are exploring a new idea from Russia that would permit nuclear power in Iran but protect against its acquisition of nuclear weapons. NPR's Mike Shuster reports.

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

Russia's idea is novel and diplomatically creative. Moscow is proposing to build a uranium-enrichment facility on Russian territory that would be financed and managed, in part, by Iran. In this way, Iran could be assured of a supply of enriched uranium for nuclear power plants, but the wider world would be assured that Iran was not enriching uranium for nuclear weapons. The proposal has the backing of Great Britain, France and Germany, which have been negotiating with Iran over its nuclear activities for more than a year, and it has the support of the Bush administration. The president's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, praised the idea when President Bush was traveling in Asia last week.

Mr. STEPHEN HADLEY (National Security Adviser): It would give Iran a sense that it would have an assured fuel supply for its civil nuclear power program because it would have management participation and financial participation in the venture, but it would have it offshore in Russia rather than in Iran.

SHUSTER: The proposal would also permit Iran to continue processing uranium, which it is doing now, into a precursor of enriched uranium. The Iranian government restarted this process, which is called conversion, in August after a freeze of more than a year, and it was that step and a breakdown of international negotiations that led to increasing pressure on the IAEA to refer Iran to the UN Security Council.

Iran has not responded favorably so far to the Russian proposal, despite the trip to Tehran last week of one of President Vladimir Putin's top advisers. Stephen Hadley said that Iran might need more time to see the wisdom of the idea.

Mr. HADLEY: The Iranians, probably not surprisingly, initially have said no; this is something that they want as a sovereign exercise to have on their territory. We think it's an area for further conversation.

SHUSTER: And so for this reason, the US and Europe have put off asking for a referring to the Security Council when the IAEA's 35-nation Board of Governors meets in Vienna tomorrow.

This is something of a turnaround for the Bush administration, which has only reluctantly backed the diplomatic effort to deal with Iran's nuclear activities. Jon Wolfsthal, a nuclear policy expert at The Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says the administration just can't handle another international crisis right now.

Mr. JON WOLFSTHAL (The Center for Strategic and International Studies): They have been, for several years, very vocal in their desire to get Iran to the UN Security Council and really to start the punishment side. But at the same time, there are a number of big problems on the Bush administration's plate, and I think they're thankful for the potential respite over Iran. So I think the fact that Iran is not going to be a crisis anytime soon works to the domestic advantage of the administration.

SHUSTER: There still is much concern about Iran's nuclear activities, which were carried out in secret for some 18 years. They were revealed initially by Iranian dissidents in 2002 and by the IAEA's inspectors since then. The Bush administration insists Iran has been running a covert nuclear weapons program. Iran says its nuclear activities are purely civilian in nature. The IAEA has not found clear evidence of a nuclear weapons program in Iran, but just a few days ago, it revealed that Iran turned over the design of the core of a nuclear weapon, something it says it received from the Pakistani nuclear engineer A.Q. Khan in the 1980s. Iran says it never did anything with the design. The IAEA's director general, Mohamed ElBaradei said in Washington recently that Iran has continued to cooperate with the agency's inspectors.

Mr. MOHAMED ELBARADEI (Inspector General, International Atomic Energy Agency): We are making progress, not with extent, the speed I would like to see, but in fairness, we are also getting access. A couple of days ago, we went to a military facility, Fars, which is a good sign. I've been telling the Iranians, `The ball is in your court. You have been caught red-handed.'

SHUSTER: That cooperation is tentative, though. Just a few days ago, the conservative Iranian parliament adopted legislation that requires the expulsion of IAEA inspectors if the agency refers Iran to the Security Council. Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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