TEHRAN, Feb 24 (Reuters) Russian and Chinese officials headed to Iran today hoping to persuade it to accept a compromise proposal over its nuclear programme that could avert the threat of U.N. sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
Time is running out for Iran to avoid formal referral to the U.N. Security Council at a board meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna on March 6.
Iran had offered U.N. inspectors information about a shadowy uranium-processing project that Western intelligence has linked to missile warhead design and tests with high explosives, a senior diplomat said yesterday.
The diplomat, close to the IAEA but asking not to be named, said IAEA inspectors would be in Tehran this weekend to check the information on the ''Green Salt Project''.
Russian officials played down expectations of a breakthrough at the Tehran talks and a new report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a non-governmental organisation that promotes conflict resolution, said Iran was in no mood to compromise.
High oil prices and U.S. difficulties in Iraq meant that for Iran ''this is probably not the time to concede but rather to press ahead, strengthening its position for the day genuine negotiations or confrontation with the U.S. might begin'', said the ICG.
Russia and China, both of whom have burgeoning energy and trade ties with Tehran and veto rights on the Security Council, do not favour the use of sanctions against Iran, which denies any intention of making nuclear arms.
WESTERN CALLS But with Iran seemingly unmoved by the threat of Security Council referral or the possibility of military action, Moscow and Beijing have joined Western calls for it to halt immediately atomic fuel research and enrichment which it resumed last month.
Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of Russia's atomic energy agency Rosatom, arrives in Tehran early today for three days of talks with Iranian officials.
China said yesterday it was sending Vice Foreign Minister Lu Guozeng to Tehran today, also for three days of talks on the nuclear impasse.
''The days before the March 6 meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency are crucial,'' Xinhua news agency quoted Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing as saying.
The Tehran negotiations follow a round of inconclusive talks in Moscow earlier this week over Russia's offer to enrich uranium for nuclear reactors on Iran's behalf, keeping nuclear technology needed for building bombs outside Iran.
Iranian officials have suggested China could also take part in the proposed joint enrichment facility in Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday he still held out hope for reaching a deal with Iran.
Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, speaking on a visit to Indonesia yesterday, said Tehran was seriously considering the Russian offer but had concerns over the details.
''There must be some new elements in that proposal. If you ask about the main elements I will tell you -- the timing and place,'' he told reporters.
Western diplomats fear Iran may be prolonging the talks with Russia in the hope of delaying any UN Security Council action.
Iran says it cannot rely solely on foreign partners to supply it with nuclear fuel and, therefore, must retain the capacity to produce at least some of the enriched uranium it needs to feed a large network of planned atomic reactors.
Washington and its allies do not want Iran to gain the know-how to enrich uranium since the same process can be used to make bomb-grade fuel.
Speaking ahead of the Tehran talks, a senior member of the Russian delegation was doubtful of any breakthrough but said Iran's desire for a compromise was increasing.
''There is the feeling that (Iran's) interest has risen ...
that their interest in reaching a compromise has increased.'' Reuters PDS VP0640