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IAEA hints at possible compromise on Iran

ElBaradei has said that it will be hard to strike a compromise on Iran's N-plan without letting it do small-scale enrichment work.

india Updated: Feb 16, 2006 21:15 IST

UN atomic watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei has warned in quiet diplomacy that it will be hard to strike a compromise on Iran's nuclear programme without letting it do small-scale enrichment work -- something the West firmly rejects, diplomats said.

A Western diplomat close to ElBaradei's International Atomic Energy Agency said it should not be seen as the IAEA director endorsing Iran doing uranium enrichment, which can make atom bomb material, but as recognition of political reality.

Led by the United States and the European Union, the IAEA's 35-nation board of governors on February 4 referred Iran to the UN Security Council, which can impose punitive measures such as sanctions to get Tehran to suspend enrichment and return to talks on guaranteeing its nuclear programme is peaceful.

IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said, "Dr ElBaradei continues to both publicly and privately call on Iran to adopt the confidence-building measures requested by the board, including suspension of all enrichment-related activities."

But the Western diplomat said ElBaradei felt that taking the Iranian issue from the IAEA to the Security Council could lead to a diplomatic confrontation and a hardening of positions on both sides, instead of negotiations.

Because of this, said the diplomat, ElBaradei has said a deal could hinge around letting Iran operate a pilot enrichment plant for small-scale work but securing firm guarantees in return for not doing industrial-scale enrichment.

Industrial-scale enrichment can produce enough enriched uranium to produce 20 or so atom bombs a year, according to experts.

Small-scale enrichment is not enough in the short term to produce nuclear weapons -- "you can't do a break-out scenario with a pilot plant," a second diplomat said.

ElBaradei has mentioned the possibility of this compromise with the United States and other IAEA board members, but the United States and the EU, which charge that Iran is secretly developing nuclear weapons, reject such a deal.

They insist Iran suspend all efforts on uranium enrichment, which Tehran says it needs to produce fuel for reactors in a peaceful program to generate electricity.

Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy of France claimed for the first time on Thursday that Iran was leading a "clandestine military nuclear programme" -- a charge Tehran fiercely denies.

Iran had offered to hold off on full-scale enrichment if it were allowed to do research, namely a pilot enrichment facility in Natanz with 164 centrifuges which would be tightly monitored by the IAEA, rather than a facility with tens of thousands of centrifiges for industrial-scale work.

But since being referred to the Security Council, Iran has moved ahead on enrichment work by testing centrifuges at Natanz, and has even threatened to withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

A Western diplomat sympathetic to ElBaradei's position said, "At the end of the day, the West is going to have to accept a pilot plant."

The diplomat said the number of people working there could be controlled so that "you would be able to see if people were disappearing into a clandestine program" to enrich uranium.

The diplomat said enrichment technology is "out of the bag" anyway and Iran must be given "a pilot enrichment plant in return for not having an industrial plant" as part of a package of incentives and caveats."

A European diplomat, who like others interviewed asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue, said, "In the end, if we want an agreement we are going to have to make a compromise."

But analyst Gary Samore, a former US non-proliferation official, said that letting Iran do small-scale enrichment was "not a practical option."

"Iran is not interested in a deal. Iran's interest is in getting its weapons option," he said.

ElBaradei feels however that if Iran suspends enrichment and guarantees it will not seek nuclear weapons, a pilot plant would meet its insistence on its right under the NPT to enrich uranium.

Moscow has proposed hosting Iranian enrichment in Russia so Iran would not acquire "breakout" technology, but Tehran says it must be allowed to enrich on its own soil.