Iran urged to back away from confrontation over nuclear arms

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The head of the UN's nuclear agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, is holding talks in Tehran today as pressure mounts on the Iranian government to step back from confrontation after it took a decisive step towards building a nuclear bomb.

Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, is seeking "strong steps" from the UN Security Council after Iran announced triumphantly on Tuesday that it had enriched uranium - the key step along the road to creating a nuclear weapon.

Iran's allies on the 15-member council, Russia and China, also joined Britain, France and Germany in condemning the country's decision to defy the international community by pursuing its enrichment programme. "We believe that this step is wrong. It runs counter to decisions of the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] and resolutions of the UN Security Council," Mikhail Kamynin, Russia's Foreign Ministry spokesman, said.

Russia hopes the visit to Tehran by the IAEA's director general will produce a solution to the stand-off over Iran's nuclear ambitions. But British diplomats said Mr ElBaradei was not in Tehran to negotiate with the Iranian leadership.

The Iranian government, which claimed on Tuesday to have enriched uranium to the 3.5 per cent level required for fuel in a civilian power plant, has refused a UN demand to resume its suspension of enrichment-related activities. Weapons- grade uranium is enriched to 90 per cent or more.

Mr ElBaradei is to report to the Security Council at the end of the month on whether Iran has complied with all IAEA and UN demands. The council will then decide on its next step, but Russia and China remain hostile to sanctions.

Iran insists its nuclear programme is purely peaceful and that it has a treaty right to enrich uranium.

Western diplomats said the IAEA would be expected to verify Iran's claim that it had spun 164 centrifuges at its Natanz plant in order to produce the low-grade uranium. Experts have also said the technology to produce weapons-grade uranium was far less complicated than the first step.

Iran repeated yesterday that it intended to move to large-scale enrichment involving 54,000 centrifuges for industrial purposes. Nuclear experts said that such quantities of enriched uranium could be diverted into a weapons programme.

Iran's strategy could be to use the enrichment issue as a bargaining chip to negotiate from a position of strength with the West, which insists that all enrichment activities should stop, according to analysts.