Progress claimed in bid to halt Iran's nuclear project

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The big powers reported some progress yesterday in the struggle to agree a package that would reward Iran for halting uranium enrichment by supplying Tehran with a "safe" nuclear reactor, and other incentives, while warning of sanctions if it does not.

The meeting in London of senior officials of the US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, who are revisiting a package offered last year to Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions, came as the Israeli Prime Minister warned in a speech in Washington to the US Congress that Iran's nuclear programme represented an "existential threat" to Israel "to which we cannot consent". "But it is not Israel's threat alone," said Ehud Olmert. "It is a threat to all those committed to stability in the Middle East and the well-being of the world at large.

"This challenge, which I believe is the test of our time, is one the West cannot afford to fail. History will judge our generation by the actions we take now."

John Chipman, the director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, based in London, predicted that having rejected the last European offer, "Iran is not likely to be any more swayed this time".

But he argued that would strengthen the hand of the US and the three European countries in their attempts to persuade Russia and China of the need for further measures at the UN. Russia and China, which hold veto power at the Security Council along with Britain, France and the US, are adamant that sanctions should not be invoked.

The Foreign Office said the talks had been "constructive and valuable" and the officials had been "encouraged".

Iranian scientists announced last month they had enriched uranium to a sufficient level to power a nuclear reactor. The US and Europe fear Iran is building a nuclear weapon. The International Institute for Strategic Studies has said it would take Iran until 2010 to produce enough enriched uranium for a weapon.

* Stone-throwing Iranian students fought police and Islamic vigilantes yesterday in protest against restrictions imposed by the government.