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Iran minister says won't give up nuclear programme

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    TOKYO, Feb 28: Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said today (Feb 28, 2006) that Tehran would not give up its nuclear programme, but added that ongoing talks with Russia to jointly enrich uranium would ease international concerns over its atomic ambitions.

    His comments came after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a report yesterday that Iran was pursuing a nuclear fuel enrichment programme and obstructing United Nations probes spurred by suspicions that it is seeking to build nuclear weapons.

    ''We would like to enjoy our rights like Japan to have nuclear technology, of course for peaceful purposes,'' Mottaki told reporters after meeting Japanese Trade Minister Toshihiro Nikai.

    ''The Russian proposal would be a bridge between Iran's right to peaceful use of nuclear energy and (gaining) international trust,'' a Japanese official quoted Mottaki as telling Nikai.

    On Sunday, Iran's nuclear chief said Tehran had reached a ''basic'' agreement with Russia on a joint venture to enrich uranium, but it was unclear if that meant Iran would give up enrichment work at home, the main demand of Western nations.

    Mottaki told Nikai that Iran and Russia were still discussing where to carry out the joint enrichment, according to the Japanese official, who also attended the meeting.

    Russia had originally proposed that Iran's uranium be enriched in Russia to clear suspicions that Tehran might divert the nuclear fuel for a weapons programme.

    But Iran has insisted on the right to enrich uranium on its own soil, and it was unclear how the original Russian proposal could satisfy Tehran.

    Yesterday's IAEA report was circulated to the watchdog's board members before they meet on March 6 to discuss it. The report will be forwarded to the UN Security Council, where the United States and European powers are likely to call for sanctions against Iran.

    The stand-off has put Japan in a bind between its policy to stay in diplomatic sync with the United States, its main security ally, and its plans to develop an Iranian oil field that Tokyo sees as vital to its energy strategy.

    Nikai said Japan did not want to see Iran, its third-largest oil supplier, isolated within the international community, and he urged Iran to give up its uranium-enrichment programme, the Japanese official said.

    Japan imports about 15 per cent of its crude oil from Iran, or some 500,000 barrels a day, and has maintained good ties with the Islamic Republic, even at the expense of upsetting Washington.

    Despite US objections, Tokyo went ahead two years ago with a deal on a billion-dollar project to develop the Azadegan oil field in Iran, estimated to hold the world's second-biggest single oil reserves.

    The Japanese government has a 36 per cent stake in Japan's biggest oil developer, INPEX Corp., which plans to develop the southern part of Azadegan, estimated to hold 26 billion barrels of oil.

    REUTERS

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