The United States, Russia, China and key European powers may for the first time be ready to allow Teheran to keep some of its uranium enrichment program instead of demanding it be completely mothballed, foreign government officials said Tuesday. Speaking on the eve of talks between top Iranian envoy Ali Larijani and Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, the officials - some of them diplomats, others based in their capitals - said the discussions were key because for the first time they could try to sidestep the deadlock over enrichment by trying to agree on a new way of defining enrichment.
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Iran's defiance of a UN Security Council demand to freeze all activities linked to enrichment - a possible pathway to nuclear arms - has led to two sanctions-bearing resolutions against Teheran, the latest in March. Although the punishments are selective and relatively mild, they could be further sharpened if the Islamic republic refuses to compromise.
The United States and others say past suspicious nuclear activities - including a program Teheran kept secret for nearly two decades - make Iran a special case.
But Teheran argues the sanctions are illegal, saying that it - like other nations that have endorsed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty - has the right to enrich to generate nuclear power. That, say Iranian officials, is the only purpose of their program, rejecting suspicions that they want ultimately to enrich to weapons-grade uranium for the fissile core of nuclear warheads.
The last face-to-face talks between Solana and Larijani were more than six months ago, and they foundered over the same issue. Solana, representing the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, demanded that Iran mothball not only fledging enrichment efforts but all linked aspects, including assembling centrifuges to enrich and facilities to house such plants. Teheran refused.
The approach on both sides before Wednesday's talks, however, might make a compromise easier, because of a new willingness to examine possible ways of redefining an enrichment freeze, said the officials, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because their information was confidential.
Iran now is running more than 1,300 centrifuge machines and - as a prelude to enrichment - has coated their insides with minute amounts of the uranium gas that is used for enrichment itself, according to an internal International Atomic Energy Agency document.
Iran's ultimate goal is to run 50,000 centrifuges a year, enough to churn out material for a network of nuclear power generators - or a full-scale nuclear weapons program, should it choose to do so.
One of the diplomats said recognition by the United States and its allies that Iran would never accept their earlier demand of a full freeze dictated a decision to contemplate "a new definition of enrichment" that would allow Teheran to keep some of its program intact without actually turning out enriched material.
"The prize is the 50,000," he said, alluding to attempts by the six world powers to prevent Iran from developing its full-scale program at its underground enrichment facility at Natanz.
He said the United States was favoring "cold standby" - where a set number of centrifuges are allowed to remain standing and assembled in series but not running. Iran, he said, was likely coming to Wednesday's discussions seeking "hot standby" - with the machines at least operating, if not producing enriched uranium.
The six powers also wanted to reduce assembled and hooked-up centrifuges to less than 1,000, so - should Larijani and Solana agree that there was further room for discussion - numbers also would likely play a role, he said.