Russia and Iran to continue nuclear enrichment talks

Russian and Iranian delegations ended a day of high-profile nuclear talks without any visible breakthrough, but agreed to continue their negotiations on Moscow’s proposal to enrich uranium for Iran as a way of reducing suspicion that Tehran is trying to develop nuclear weapons.

Russia’s foreign minister yesterday voiced hope of keeping international discussion of the issue within the UN’s nuclear watchdog agency rather than referring the matter to the UN Security Council, which could impose sanctions.

Decisive talks are expected to take place later this week, when Russia’s nuclear chief is set to visit Tehran.

Russia’s offer has been backed by the United States and the European Union as the final opportunity to ease international concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme without seeking sanctions, but Iran has adamantly insisted on maintaining a domestic enrichment effort.

The office of Igor Ivanov, the head of Russia’s presidential Security Council, issued a terse statement after the closed-door Kremlin talks, saying that negotiators had “agreed to continue talks” on the Kremlin’s proposal.

Ivanov’s spokeswoman, Kseniya Roshchina, refused to say when, where or at what level the talks would be continued. The Iranian delegation was expected to head home today, she said.

The Foreign Ministry announced later that the talks will be continued today by experts. It was not clear if these were the negotiations Ivanov’s office referred to, or simply low-level technical consultations before the Iranians’ planned departure.

Analysts had warned against expecting a decisive outcome yesterday, saying that any breakthrough would more likely emerge during Russian atomic energy chief Sergei Kiriyenko’s visit to Iran on Thursday.

Lavrov said after the talks that Iran should resume the moratorium on uranium enrichment that it broke last month and assuage international concerns about its nuclear activities.

He didn’t give any details of yesterday’s talks, but said that they gave reason to hope the issue could remain in the hands of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency.

“The talks are continuing, and it’s too early to talks about their results. We hope that they will define a perspective of keeping the situation within the IAEA framework,” Lavrov said. “To achieve that, it’s important for Iran to resume a moratorium on uranium enrichment on its territory and continue contacts between all interested parties to achieve mutually acceptable agreements.”

The Russian offer, backed by the United States and Europe, was widely seen as the last chance for Iran to address the West’s concerns before a March 6 IAEA meeting that could start a process leading to punishment by the Security Council.

Lavrov said he hoped that the meeting would register “Iran’s fulfilment of the IAEA’s requests” and note “a progress in clearing up issues which remained unclear in respect to Iran’s nuclear activities in the past.”

Iran has adamantly defended its right to maintain a domestic enrichment programme, seen by the United States and other Western nations as a cover-up for a suspected weapons programme.

The head of the Iranian delegation in Moscow, deputy secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Ali Hosseinitash, 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.

“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.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, speaking in Brussels where he held talks with senior European Union officials, also reaffirmed that Tehran would continue nuclear research even if it accepted Russia’s enrichment offer.

“If we reach some compromise ... we can continue our cooperation from where we are now,” Mottaki said. “It means the research department continues its activity and Russia’s proposal is for major nuclear fuel production.”

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.

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