Iran said Monday it has earmarked $1.4 billion for construction of nuclear power plants amid international pressure to abandon its nuclear program, state television reported. Word of the planned funding came as top members of the UN Security Council were meeting in Britain on Monday to consider additional sanctions on Iran for its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment, a key nuclear process.
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An Iranian parliament committee, reviewing next year's budget, approved the $1.4 billion appropriation for building new reactors, 10 percent of which will go for training staff, the TV report said.
The decision requires approval by the majority of 290-seat parliament members and a constitutional watchdog to be a law.
Iran has already said it plans to build as many as 20 nuclear reactors, part of a project to generate 20,000 megawatts of electricity through nuclear power within the next two decades.
But it could face delays in opening its first nuclear plant, a $1 billion project still under construction with Russian help at Bushehr.
Russia said earlier this month that its uranium fuel deliveries for Bushehr could fall behind schedule because of Iran's delays in payment.
Iran denied it had failed to make payments and raised concerns that Moscow was buckling under international pressure and delaying the reactor's launch. Iran expects the Bushehr plant to begin generating electricity this year.
The TV report did not say if any of the new appropriation by parliament would go toward the Bushehr plant.
Restrictions on trade and arms for Iran were likely to be considered at the meeting of diplomats from the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany.
Senior representatives of the six nations were meeting at the Foreign Office in London to discuss how to respond to Iran's failure to respect a UN deadline to halt its uranium enrichment work.
The UN's nuclear watchdog agency confirmed Thursday that Iran had ignored a Security Council ultimatum to freeze enrichment - a possible pathway to nuclear arms - and had instead expanded its program.
A senior British diplomat attending Monday's meeting said the representatives would examine options for further sanctions, including whittling away at export credits made available to companies that trade with Iran. Restrictions on arms exports to Iran also are likely to be discussed, said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Outside the Foreign Office, close to Britain's Parliament, a small group of demonstrators chanted slogans denouncing Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Many held placards bearing the slogan "Ahmadinejad Must Go."
No conclusions are expected after the meeting. Instead, the diplomats will return to their home capitals to report on the issues they discussed.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair's official spokesman said Monday that last week's nuclear watchdog report caused concern, and the preliminary talks were aimed at gathering opinions on how to proceed.
"What Iran shouldn't in any way do is make any mistake about the unity of the international community in opposition to its continuing flaunting of what the UN has said its obligations are," said Blair's spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government rules.
The senior British diplomat said there was evidence that the Security Council's adoption of limited economic sanctions against Iran in December had begun to show success.
The Dec. 23 resolution ordered all countries to stop supplying Iran with materials and technology that could contribute to its nuclear and missile programs and to freeze assets of 10 key Iranian companies and 12 individuals related to those programs.
Besides a wider arms embargo and new economic penalties, other diplomats said last week that new, tougher measures could include a mandatory travel ban against individuals on the UN list and an expansion of the list to make more individuals and companies subject to sanctions.
Russia and China, which both have strong commercial ties to Teheran, forced other council nations - the US, Britain and France - to drop a travel ban and other tougher measures from the December resolution and it is likely they will resist some of the harsher restrictions this time around as well.
Still, the British diplomat said all participants in the talks supported an incremental tightening of sanctions.
On the possibility of economic penalties, he noted that European agencies provide US$20 billion (â‚¬15 billion) worth of export credits to support trade with Iran and that some of those credits were already shrinking.
"It is the world community that Iran has to answer to, not one of two individual countries - unfortunately the president seems not to be willing to do so," Blair's spokesman said.