Russia expressed limited hope today 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.
The Russian offer, backed by the United States and Europe, represents a chance for Iran to address these 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.
“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 with Iran.
The negotiations led by Ali Hosseinitash, deputy secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, and his Russian counterpart Valentin Sobolev, began at 2pm (11am Irish time), said the press service of Russia’s Security Council.
The Iranians have blown hot and cold over Moscow’s initiative, under which Iran’s enrichment activities would take place on Russian soil to ensure no uranium is diverted for nuclear weapons. Enrichment is a process that can produce either fuel for a nuclear reactor or material for a warhead.
Iran maintains its nuclear programme is purely for civilian energy needs, but Western nations accuse it of pursuing a secret atomic weapons drive that would upset the regional balance f power in the Middle East. The United States has said it is committed to addressing the Iran standoff diplomatically, but that it reserves the right to use any option, including force.
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 programme.
Lavrov said last week that the Russian proposal was 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.
But the top Iranian negotiator, Hosseinitash, took a tough stance ahead of the meeting.
He rejected 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 before his departure from Tehran, according to ITAR-Tass.
He added that there was “no link between the moratorium on uranium enrichment and talks on the Russian plan” and stressed that Iran did not intend to renounce its right to conduct a full nuclear cycle.
Analysts warned against expecting a decisive outcome today, 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.
But Former Russian Atomic Energy Minister Viktor Mikhailov told the Vremya Novostei daily newspaper in comments published today that the entire facility would be off-limits.
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 Tehran to agree to move its full program abroad, a diplomat familiar with ElBaradei’s thinking said yesterday.
Iranian presidential spokesman Gholamhossein Elham 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 Tehran’s right to access nuclear energy were unacceptable.
For Russia, this week’s talks are an opportunity to stave off the threat of action against a country where it has strong interests – it is building Iran’s first nuclear power station – and win prestige by helping find a solution to a conflict in which it was long seen as part of the problem.
But the price would be high for Iran, at least in terms of pride: Giving up enrichment efforts at home, even temporarily, goes against its leaders’ adamant insistence on their right to conduct the process as part of what they insist is a peaceful nuclear energy programme.