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Russia 'to break ranks' in Iran nuclear row

Anton La Guardia / London Telegraph | March 7 2006

Western countries were alarmed last night by signs that Russia was ready to break ranks and agree to Iran's demand to continue nuclear "research and development", fearing that this would make it easier for Teheran to develop nuclear weapons.

Briefed about the latest Russian proposals, Mohammed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), expressed the hope that a compromise could be reached "in the next week or so".

But Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, was expected to deliver a firm rejection of the Kremlin's blueprint at a meeting in Washington with her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov last night.

"He is going to get a strong response from the Americans," said one western source. "The Russians are testing the waters and are desperate for a deal. But any kind of research or development will allow the Iranians to take significant steps towards mastering the technology."

The row threatens to undermine the fragile international unity reached last month, when America, Russia, China and European countries agreed that Iran should be reported to the UN Security Council over its nuclear programme.

Diplomats said that the UN might start discussing the issue next week. But the apparent change of heart by Moscow, which is a vital trading partner of Iran and a veto-wielding member of the Security Council, greatly complicates the strategy.

Speaking at the start of a meeting of the IAEA's board of governors in Vienna, Mr ElBaradei appeared to be playing for more time for a diplomatic solution.

"Everybody understands that escalation is not going to help a situation that is highly, highly volatile right now in the Middle East," he said.

Iran says that it is seeking to develop nuclear power for "peaceful purposes" but western countries suspect that it is trying to make nuclear weapons.

Last year Teheran ended its "voluntary" suspension of uranium enrichment, a process involving technology that could be used to produce nuclear fuel for power stations as well as fissile material for bombs.

As retaliation for an IAEA resolution that it should report Iran to the Security Council, Teheran also scaled back its co-operation with nuclear inspectors.

Western countries have supported a Russian initiative to resolve the crisis by moving the enrichment facilities from Iran to Russia, where the work would be overseen by Russian engineers to ensure that it produces only low-enriched uranium, for up to 10 years.

They had trusted Moscow to respect the "red line" that Iran should not be allowed independently to carry out any enrichment, including "research and development".

But diplomats say that Mr Lavrov is now proposing that Iran should be allowed to carry out small-scale research on a "cascade" system of up to 164 inter-connected uranium enrichment centrifuges.

This would make it difficult for Iran to produce useable quantities of enriched uranium, which usually requires thousands of machines to operate.

But western experts say that any work on enrichment will bring Iran closer to the ability to make weapons, perhaps at secret locations.

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