Iranian nuclear official proposes that France enrich Iran's uranium

Tuesday, October 3rd 2006, 6:24 am
By: News On 6

PARIS (AP) _ A top Iranian nuclear official proposed Tuesday that France create a consortium to enrich uranium in Iran, saying that could satisfy international demands for outside oversight of Tehran's nuclear program.

French officials distanced themselves from the idea, which an analyst called an Iranian attempt to stall or divert attention from mounting tensions over its nuclear activities.

Mohammad Saeedi, deputy chief of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, made the proposal in an interview with French radio in Tehran, suggesting that France's state-controlled nuclear company and one of its subsidiaries be partners in the consortium. He did not specify what form Iran's participation should take.

``To be able to arrive at a solution, we have just had an idea. We propose that France create a consortium for the production in Iran of enriched uranium,'' Saeedi told France-Info in the interview broadcast Tuesday.

``France, through the companies Eurodif and Areva, could control in a tangible way our enrichment activities,'' he added.

France is the world's most nuclear energy-dependent country, relying on atomic reactors for about 75 percent of its electricity, and it has several leading nuclear manufacturers, including state-controlled Areva.

Eurodif is a branch of Areva that was created in the 1970s by France with support from Belgium, Spain, Italy _ and Iran.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei said he was surprised by the idea, which he called ``totally new for us.''

Mattei said any proposals should wait until after negotiations are under way and emphasized that the current priority was talks between Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani and European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

Solana gave a cautious response to the proposal, saying the idea of a consortium had long been discussed in his talks with Larijani.

``It's an idea that was talked about lightly, maybe now we can talk about it more seriously,'' he said.

Saeedi's proposal echoed a similar idea involving Russia. Moscow had sought to defuse the dispute with Iran by offering to conduct all of Iran's enrichment on Russian soil, but Tehran has refused.

The five permanent U.N. Security Council members _ the United States, France, Britain, Russia and China _ and Germany are in a standoff with Iran over its enrichment program, which Tehran insists is aimed at producing electricity but which the U.S. and its allies fear is aimed at making nuclear weapons.

Larijani was to hold talks Tuesday in Tehran with the head of Russia's Security Council. Immediate sanctions, favored by the U.S. and Britain, have been resisted by France, to some extent, and by Russia and China _ both major commercial partners of Iran.

Georges Le Guelte, a nuclear expert at France's Institute for International and Strategic Research, called Saeedi's announcement ``a diversion tactic.''

He said the international community was unlikely to agree to such a deal because the enrichment would still take place on Iranian territory.

``This is something that would be almost as dangerous as leaving the Iranians to do it alone,'' he said. ``The day that (Iran's president) thinks the international situation would permit, he will show Areva and Eurodif the door and say, 'Now I will take care of the plant.'''

Iranian media made no mention of the proposal, and the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran declined to comment.

Areva spokesman Charles Hufnagel expressed surprise at Saeedi's announcement.

``We are not involved in any negotiations'' about a possible consortium for enriching Iranian uranium, he said. He added that any discussions involving nuclear cooperation with Iran would be at the government level because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Iran's participation in Eurodif was reduced after the 1979 revolution, and now Iran has a ``purely financial'' stake of about 11 percent through a joint French-Iranian company called Sofidif, Hufnagel said.

Saeedi gave no other details of his proposal, and it was not clear when he made his comments to France-Info.

France, a veto-wielding member of the Security Council, is among countries pushing to stop Iran's nuclear activities.

Iran ignored a U.N. Security Council deadline in August to suspend uranium enrichment or face possible sanctions.

Russia is building the Islamic republic's first nuclear power plant in the southern port of Bushehr under an $800 million contract. Moscow says it has worked out a deal with Iran for all of Bushehr's spent fuel to be sent to Russia, eliminating the possibility that Iran could reprocess it for weapons.