Iran considers Saudi plan to end nuclear impasse

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The Independent Online

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has for the first time signalled that Iran may be interested in a facesaving way out of the international crisis triggered by its suspected nuclear weapons programme.

The President said in Riyadh yesterday that he would discuss Saudi proposals for a consortium for uranium enrichment in a neutral third country such as Switzerland, which represents US interests in Tehran. The Iranian leadership had rejected similar Russian proposals.

Mr Ahmadinejad did not reject the Saudi plan out of hand, telling Dow Jones newswires: "We will be talking with our [Arab] friends" about the scheme endorsed by the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council. He did not comment further.

A Foreign Office spokesman said the Saudi ideas were discussed in London at foreign minister level during a state visit by King Abdullah last month.

But UK officials warned that Mr Ahmadinejad may be engaging in " delaying tactics" by indicating that Iran would consult on the proposals for a consortium to produce nuclear fuel for Iran and other Middle East states intent on building nuclear power programmes, under UN supervision.

The plan would have the advantage of assuaging Western fears about possible weaponisation. Iran says that because of the lack of guarantees from foreign suppliers, it will continue to develop its own indigenous nuclear fuel cyclepurely for generating electricity.

But the West fears it may be used for nuclear weapons, and this has led to increased tensions. Iran has failed to avert the threat of toughened sanctions despite co-operating with UN weapons inspectors in clarifying many outstanding issues related to its past nuclear activities.

But the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed El Baradei, told the UN Security Council last week that Iran continued to defy the council by continuing enrichment-related activities.

He also said that Iran now had roughly 3,000 centrifuges running at its Natanz enrichment plant, meaning it could produce enough uranium for a weapon within 12 to 18 months. But Mr ElBaradei stressed that the Natanz centrifuges were not working at full capacity, and enriching to a low grade only suitable for nuclear power.

The West could also be interested in a face-saving solution, following China’s decision not to attend a meeting of foreign ministry officials of the six countries at which the US, UK, and France had been expected to push for tougher UN sanctions. The meeting has now been cancelled.

Switzerland has previously been involved in the search for a negotiated way out of the impasse. Last February, Switzerland proposed a staged plan leading to a simultaneous suspension of Iran’s uranium enrichment work and ofUN sanctions. But Iran ruled out suspending enrichment.