Russia expressed limited hope Monday as Russian and Iranian officials started talks in Moscow on an offer to enrich uranium for Iran, seen as a final opportunity for the Islamic regime to avoid the threat of international sanctions over Western concerns it is developing nuclear weapons.
"Honestly speaking, we have modest expectations, but we will make every effort to avoid an escalation of the situation and the use of force," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told a government meeting chaired by President Vladimir Putin in televised comments shortly before the talks began.
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The top Iranian negotiator, Ali Hosseinitash, deputy secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, took a tough stance before the meeting, rejecting any link between the Russian plan and demands for Iran to restore a freeze on uranium enrichment, news agencies reported.
"The negotiations with Russia do not foresee any preconditions," Hosseinitash said, according to ITAR-Tass, stressing that Iran did not intend to renounce its right to conduct a full nuclear cycle.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Monday that his country was looking for a "peaceful solution" to the international dispute over its nuclear plans and that he was ready to hear "new ideas."
"We express our readiness for negotiations based on justice and a comprehensive compromise. We want to peacefully solve the problem," Mottaki said after talks with Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht. "We believe that the time of threats is over. The (UN) Security Council should not be considered as a tool of some countries. ... We are here to hear any new plans, any new proposal, any new ideas."
The Russian offer, backed by the United States and Europe, represents a chance for Iran to address the West's concerns before a March 6 meeting of the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, which could start a process leading to punishment before the UN Security Council.
The Russian foreign minister said Iran could conduct all nuclear activities on its own soil once the IAEA had lifted all concerns about the Iranian nuclear program.
Lavrov said last week that the Russian proposal is conditional on Iran giving up all enrichment activity, including small-scale efforts it started last week. The European Union and the United States also insist that Tehran re-impose a freeze on all enrichment.
Analysts warned against expecting a decisive outcome Monday, saying a concrete result would more likely emerge from further talks when the head of Russia's atomic energy agency, Sergei Kiriyenko, visits Iran on Thursday.
Experts have said Iran would like its scientists to have access to the Russian enrichment facility and hope to retain the right to conduct some part of the enrichment process at home.
IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei recently suggested that the international community might have no choice but to accept small-scale enrichment on Iranian soil as a condition for Teheran to agree to move its full program abroad, a diplomat familiar with ElBaradei's thinking said Sunday.
Iranian presidential spokesman Gholamhossein Elham, speaking in a news conference Monday, welcomed the IAEA proposal on small-scale enrichment inside Iran as a "positive step" toward resolving the nuclear dispute, but said that any restrictions on Teheran's right to access nuclear energy were unacceptable.