The European Union today offered to help Iran develop a civilian nuclear power program and obtain long-term fuel supplies for it in return for Iran's abandonment of "fuel cycle activities" that could produce material for nuclear weapons. Iran said it would respond in the next two days but stuck to a vow to resume work on a uranium conversion plant in defiance of the Europeans and the United States.
Acting on behalf of the European Union, negotiators from Britain, Germany and France presented Iran with a package of proposals for cooperation on political, security, economic and technological matters, as well as long-term support for Iran's civilian nuclear program.
According to a summary of the proposals obtained by The Washington Post, the European Union would recognize "Iran's right to develop a civil nuclear power generation program" that meets its energy needs and would "fully support long-term cooperation in the civil nuclear field between Iran and Russia," currently the main supplier of nuclear technology to Iran.
"Iran would have access to the international nuclear technologies market," the proposal says, and the European Union would help Iran develop its civilian atomic program, explore Iranian requirements for an additional nuclear research reactor and cooperate on other peaceful nuclear energy matters, excluding activity related to the nuclear fuel cycle.
The offer says the EU would also cooperate with Iran in the peaceful use of nuclear energy for medicine and agriculture and would help ensure long-term supplies of fuel for the light-water reactors in Iran's civilian nuclear industry.
In return, Iran would make "a binding commitment not to pursue fuel cycle activities other than the construction and operation of light water power and research reactors," the proposal says. In addition, it says, Iran must pledge "not to withdraw from the NPT [nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] and to keep all Iranian nuclear facilities under IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] safeguards under all circumstances." Iran also must stop construction at Arak of a heavy-water research reactor, "which gives rise to proliferation concerns," the EU proposal says.
As part of economic and technological cooperation, the proposal says, the European Union would be prepared to declare that it views Iran "as a long-term source of oil and gas for the EU." Iran said after receiving the proposal that the EU was backing an oil pipeline across Iran as the main oil transit route from Central Asia to Europe, giving Iran an edge over rival pipelines through Russia and Turkey. But European diplomats said the proposal does not contain any such explicit backing for the Iranian alternative route, which the United States opposes.
A senior Iranian nuclear negotiator, Hossain Mousavian, told Reuters news agency in Tehran, "We will review this proposal today and tomorrow, and will definitely give our answer by Sunday."
Asked if Iran would still resume work at a uranium conversion plant near the central Iranian city of Isfahan, Mousavian said, "Yes, definitely," Reuters reported. He called on the IAEA to send inspectors to supervise the resumption of work at the plant, saying any delay in doing so would be "unacceptable." The purpose of the plant is to convert uranium oxide into a gas as a precursor to enrichment.
The IAEA plans to hold an emergency meeting on Iran Tuesday. Washington has demanded that the U.N. nuclear agency report Iran to the U.N. Security Council for the imposition of sanctions if the Iranians go ahead with plans to resume activities aimed at producing highly enriched uranium, which can be used to build nuclear weapons.
In Paris, French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy warned Iran today that if it resumes the suspended activities, Security Council action will inevitably follow.
"I hope that Iran will hear the voice of reason and that it will take the path of negotiation and dialogue, and that it will not move toward a resumption of nuclear activities," Douste-Blazy told Europe-1 radio. He emphasized that Europe was prepared to support a civilian nuclear program in Iran that was "non-proliferating."
Iran has long insisted that its nuclear energy program -- first conceived in the 1970s by the U.S.-backed government of the late shah of Iran and later resumed by the fundamentalist Muslim clerics who overthrew him -- is intended for the peaceful purpose of generating electricity. However, the United States suspects the Iranian nuclear power program is aimed at providing cover for efforts to build nuclear weapons.
Iran has argued that it has the right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to develop its own nuclear fuel cycle, a process that could involve producing possible weapons-grade nuclear material.
Before handing over his office to the newly elected Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has a reputation as a hard-liner, outgoing president Mohammad Khatami said last week that Iran would end its suspension of uranium conversion activities regardless of the European Union's proposals.
He told reporters July 27 that he hoped the EU proposals would allow for the resumption of uranium conversion at Isfahan. "But whether they do or not, we're going to resume the activities at Isfahan," said Khatami, who was known as a reformer and a moderate compared to other clerics in Iran's theocracy.
As part of negotiations with the EU, Iran in November suspended work on both uranium conversion and enrichment while awaiting the European offer. Conversion turns yellowcake, which is derived from uranium ore, into uranium hexafluoride gas that can be used in enrichment operations.
Iran draws a distinction between conversion and enrichment, but the EU regards both as part of fuel-cycle activities that it wants the Iranians to abandon.
"Neither enrichment nor conversion is acceptable," a European diplomat said today.
Khatami told reporters after a cabinet meeting last week near the end of his term, "For the moment, there is no question of resuming enrichment itself." He said Iran now intends to resume work only at its Isfahan conversion plant, but he added, "One day we will resume our enrichment activities too."
Ahmadinejad, a former mayor of Tehran strongly supported by conservative Shiite Muslim clerics, is scheduled to be sworn in as president on Saturday. He has said Iran does not want nuclear weapons but will not bow to international pressure as it pursues its nuclear energy program.