In a major concession, world powers are no longer demanding that Iran commit to a prolonged moratorium on uranium enrichment and are now asking only for a suspension during talks on its nuclear program, diplomats and officials said Wednesday.
The proposal and a connected offer to allow continued uranium conversion are part of an effort to avoid a showdown over international concerns that the Iranians are trying to develop nuclear weapons, reports Trend.
Backing off the previous stance on enrichment signals a possible readiness by the United States and key allies to accept some limited form of enrichment by Iran, despite years of warnings from Washington that Tehran wanted such technology to make atomic warheads.
Iran insists its nuclear program is intended only to produce power, arguing it needs enrichment technology to produce fuel for atomic reactors that would generate electricity.
Since talks between European nations and Iran broke off last August, the public stance by the European negotiators and the United States has been that Iran must commit to a long-term halt in enrichment as a precondition for talks.
Still, a diplomat said that despite the concession, a long-term moratorium remained the preferred goal of the six nations that approved a package of incentives for the Tehran regime last week the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany.
Beyond that, the talks are meant to reach agreement on what kind of nuclear activities Iran can conduct under conditions that dispel fears it wants a military program.
European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who presented the offer to Iranian officials this week, said Wednesday that the issue of enrichment would have to be reassessed once talks were completed.
"In principle ... they will have to stop now, we will have to negotiate with no process of enrichment in place," he told reporters in Germany. "After the finalization of the negotiations we will see what happens."
Solana said the incentive offer came with "no specific timeframe," but that he expected an Iranian answer within "weeks."
He said nothing about uranium conversion, which is a step preceding enrichment. But diplomats told The Associated Press that Iran would be allowed to continue that activity. Previously, Washington and its allies wanted a freeze on conversion, too.
The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to divulge the contents of the offer.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said suspension was a precondition for the talks, adding: "Beyond that, I am not going to speculate. Beyond that, we are truly into the realm of the hypothetical and theoretical."
France warned Wednesday that Iran would face U.N. Security Council sanctions if it rejected the proposal for opening talks. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow would support sanctions only if Iran violated the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, a possible indication of continued discord among the six powers involved in the effort.
Diplomats said previously that both Russia and China agreed during last week's talks in Vienna to the possibility of imposing sanctions if Iran rejected the initiative.
Diplomats told the AP that Germany is been advocating that Tehran be allowed some small-scale enrichment.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, backs that view, arguing that with Iran already successful in small-scale enrichment, it is unlikely to give up its right to such activity.
Iran announced April 11 that it had enriched uranium for the first time, using 164 centrifuges. It would need tens of thousands of centrifuges to produce adequate fuel for a nuclear reactor or material for a warhead.
Those arguing that Iran be allowed to do research and development on enrichment say it is better to permit an internationally supervised program on a small scale while trying to gain agreement from Tehran not to develop an industrial-scale program.
Iran has said it intends to move toward large-scale enrichment involving 3,000 centrifuges by late 2006 and 54,000 centrifuges later, but it also indicated it might suspend large-scale enrichment to ease tensions.
In an April report, ElBaradei said Iran seemed to be accurately claiming to have enriched small amounts of uranium to a level of 3.6 percent rich enough for reactor fuel, but far below the 90 percent level needed for weapons-grade material.
The report also said uranium conversion "is still ongoing," adding that more than 120 tons had been converted over eight months.
A new report from ElBaradei will be circulated to the IAEA's 35-nation board Thursday, ahead of the U.N. watchdog agency's meeting next week. One diplomat said it was unlikely to have major revelations about Tehran's activities.
The Iran package was approved last week by the five permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany.
It has not been made public but some of details have been leaked, revealing major U.S. concessions designed to entice Iran to the negotiating table among them an offer for Europe to provide some nuclear technology to Tehran in exchange for giving up enrichment, diplomats say.
A European offer of light water reactors for civilian nuclear energy purposes was revealed last month.
A diplomat said Wednesday that Iran also was being offered a chance to acquire jetliners and get Boeing parts for its aging civilian planes, with the initiative holding out the prospect of lifting an embargo on such sales.