The head of the UN nuclear watchdog agency says a deal on Iran's suspect nuclear program could be only a few days away, making UN Security Council action unneeded.
International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed ElBaradei did not elaborate on his comment on Monday. But his optimism was believed to be linked to a confidential Russian proposal to allow Iran to enrich some uranium domestically, diplomats said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to divulge details of the plan.
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"I am still very much hopeful that in the next week an agreement could be reached," ElBaradei told reporters.
However the plan - which Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov planned to discuss with officials in Washington later on Monday - was expected to meet strong US resistance over fears it could be misused to make nuclear weapons.
US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns underlined US determination, saying in Washington, that "unless Iran does a dramatic about face," he expected the issue to be taken up by the Security Council.
Later, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned ElBaradei "to reiterate the US position that Iran should cease all enrichment-related activity." In response, ElBaradei agreed that Iran must not be allowed to have enrichment activity on its territory, said a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity beause he was not in position to speak for the IAEA.
The Russian proposal described by the diplomats would allow Tehran to conduct small-scale uranium enrichment, and would ask the IAEA to set the parameters of such activity to minimize the chances of abuse.
In return, the diplomats said, Iran would be asked to recommit to in-depth IAEA probes of its program on short notice. Iran canceled such investigations last month after the IAEA's 35-nation board put the UN Security Council on alert by passing on Iran's nuclear dossier.
Moscow, with the support of the United States and other countries, has offered to enrich Iran's uranium in Russia - to ensure greater oversight - but Iran, insisting its goals are peaceful, has said it should be free to carry out some enrichment domestically.
The Russian proposal was driving a wedge into what had been a relatively united front on uranium enrichment, with Germany cautiously supportive and France and Britain opposed and backing the United States.
In New York, John Bolton, the US ambassador to the United Nations, said the United States would oppose any enrichment on Iranian soil.
"It's been a core element of our view and the view of the European three, and certainly of the Russian Federation, that no enrichment in Iran is permissible," Bolton told reporters.
He said "even small so-called research enrichment programs could give Iran the possibility of mastering the technical deficiencies that it's currently encountering in its program" and translate them into large-scale enrichment later.
France, Britain and Germany broke off negotiations on behalf of the European Union with Iran last year after it resumed enrichment-related activities, which can produce both nuclear fuel and the fissile core of warheads. Since then, they, the United States, Canada, Australia and Japan have been at the forefront of efforts to have the UN Security Council take up the Iran issue.
The diplomats said negotiations on trying to bridge differences continued Monday on the sidelines of a 35-nation board meeting of the IAEA, which began Monday and would focus on Iran later in the week.
A senior European diplomat said the deal would likely stand or fall "on the response Lavrov gets in Washington" in meeting with Rice and other senior administration officials.
But he said all involved - whether or not they supported allowing Iran some control of enrichment - were firm on the need for Tehran to first return to a freeze of all such activities for a prolonged time "to re-establish confidence."
He said the Russians had proposed eight years. A US State Department official, who also insisted on anonymity, refused to specify a length of time but said two years would be too short.
The meeting is scheduled to hear a report by ElBaradei focusing on Iran's nuclear program.
The last board meeting already had sent the complete Iran file to the Security Council. This meeting is scheduled to pass the ElBaradei report on to the council, which then can decide whether to take action.