The top diplomats from Russia
and the United States
expressed hope Friday that a deal could be reached with Tehran
over the nuclear program that the West fears could help Iran
develop atomic weapons, but the status of a reported possible compromise remained unclear.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov
and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
made their statements after reports emerged that the United States along with EU negotiators would be prepared to accept that Iran expand its nuclear activities if it agrees to enrich uranium in Russia, instead of domestically.
Uranium in its natural state does not have a sufficiently high concentration of fissile isotopes for it to be used in nuclear reactors or weapons, and the concentration must be raised through the enrichment process. That involves converting uranium into a gas, which then is spun in centrifuges or sent through a so-called "cascade" of membranes to separate the fissile and non-fissile isotopes.
Under the reported compromise, Iran would be allowed to do the conversion work, but the enrichment would be done in Russia - an arrangement that theoretically would deny Iran the capacity to make fuel for nuclear weapons.
Rice, during a surprise trip to Iraq
, said Friday that "there is no US-European proposal to the Iranians. ... There isn't and there won't be."
But senior European officials and diplomats have told the AP that both the Europeans and Americans would be prepared to endorse such a deal, if made by Moscow
, conveyed to the Iranians by International Atomic Energy Agency
head Mohamed ElBaradei
and accepted by Tehran.
Rice expressed hope a deal to resolve the tense dispute would be reached.
Lavrov, at a news conference in Moscow, sidestepped a question asking specifically about whether such a proposal existed.
He said, however, that "Russia is closely cooperating with the EU troika, the United States and representatives of the International Atomic Energy Agency in order to achieve a political settlement on issues relating to Iran's nuclear program. Different options are being discussed by experts, diplomats and nuclear experts."
"We expect that this question will be resolved in the near future," he said.
The stakes are high for all sides, said Ian Davis, an analyst with the British-American Security Information Council, who assessed relations between Iran and the West
as "spiraling toward a greater crisis."
"We need to be thinking about how to break the logjam in a little bit more creative way than before," he said.
The International Atomic Energy Agency on Nov. 24 plans to discuss whether to refer Iran to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions connected to the nuclear program. An agreement before then could avert a vote and avoid a move that would be likely to strain relations between Russia and the United States, both of which have veto power on the Security Council.
The matter has troubled Moscow-Washington relations for years. Iran's nuclear program centers on the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant, an $800 million project that is a significant source of income for Russia as well as an emblem of its technological sophistication.
Russia in the past has floated various ideas to try to overcome Western concerns, including enrichment in Russia, and it has assured the West that Iran will send back to Russia all the reactor's spent fuel rods, which could be processed into plutonium for use in nuclear weapons.