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A top Iranian nuclear official proposed Tuesday that France enrich Iran's uranium on Iranian soil, in a bid to satisfy the international community's demands for outside oversight of Tehran's nuclear program.
French officials appeared to distance themselves from the idea, which an analyst called an Iranian attempt to stall or divert attention from mounting tensions over its nuclear activities.
In the Diaspora: From his own mouth
"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.
Eurodif is a branch of Areva, a French state-controlled nuclear manufacturer, and was created in part with Iranian backing in the 1970s.
World powers - including France - are in a standoff with Iran over its nuclear program, which Tehran insists is aimed at producing electricity, but which many nations fear is aimed at making nuclear weapons. Iran ignored a U.N. Security Council deadline in August to suspend uranium enrichment or face possible sanctions.
Saeedi gave no other details of his proposal, which appeared to be an Iranian initiative. An official at the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran referred all questions on the subject to the French side.
A French Foreign Ministry spokesman would not comment on Saeedi's proposal. Speaking on customary condition of anonymity, he said "the important thing" for France is the result of talks between Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
Larijani was to hold talks Tuesday in Tehran with the head of Russia's Security Council. Russia and China - both major commercial partners of Iran - and to some extent France have been resistant to the immediate sanctions favored by the US and Britain.
Georges Le Guelte, a nuclear expert at France's Institute for International and Strategic Research, called Iran's announcement "a diversion tactic."
He said the international community was unlikely to agree to such a deal because the enrichment would still take place on Iranian territory.
"This is something that would be almost as dangerous as leaving the Iranians to do it alone," he said. "The day that Mr. Ahmadinejad thinks the international situation would permit, he will show Areva and Eurodif the door and say, 'Now I will take care of the plant."'
Areva spokesman Charles Hufnagel said the company was not involved in any negotiations about a possible consortium for enriching Iranian uranium.
He added that any discussions involving nuclear cooperation with Iran would be at the government level. He would not comment on whether Areva would be ready in principle to lead such a consortium.
Iran's participation in Eurodif was reduced after the 1979 revolution, and now Iran has a "purely financial" stake of about 11 percent through a joint French-Iranian company called Sofidif, Hufnagel said.
Eurodif's plant in Pierrelate, southeast France, produces about a quarter of the world's enriched uranium, for use in nuclear reactors in several countries.
Tehran has claimed that it has 50 tons of UF-6 gas, the feedstock for enrichment, in that plant but has not been allowed to use it.
Saeedi's proposal echoed a similar idea involving Russia. Moscow had sought to defuse the dispute with Iran by offering to conduct all of Iran's enrichment on Russian soil, but Tehran has refused.
Russia is building the Islamic republic's first nuclear power plant in the southern port of Bushehr under an US$800 million (â‚¬625 million) contract. Moscow says it has worked out a deal with Iran for all of Bushehr's spent fuel to be sent to Russia, eliminating the possibility that Iran could reprocess it for weapons.
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