Russia, Iran make new bid to break nuclear impasse
MOSCOW, March 1 (Reuters) Iran tried to head off mounting Western pressure over its atomic programme today as its nuclear negotiators discussed a Russian compromise offer in Moscow and its president sought support in Muslim Malaysia.
Iranian officials, headed by top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, were in a hotel in central Moscow for a third round of talks on Moscow's proposal to carry out uranium enrichment for the Islamic Republic on Russian soil.
But Tehran stuck to its line that even if a deal is struck with the Russians it will not bow to the key demand from its critics -- to drop all efforts to enrich uranium at home.
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Malaysia for a trip that appeared to be part of a campaign to win support for his country's nuclear programme as a crunch March 6 meeting of the United Nation's nuclear watchdog drew closer.
An Iranian diplomat said Ahmadinejad, who stopped off in Kuwait en route, would brief Malaysian leaders on ''Iran's peaceful nuclear technology achievements and the purpose of its activities.'' Tehran says it wants a nuclear programme solely to generate electricity, but some Western nations led by the United States and the EU trio of Britain, France and Germany say they suspect it is trying to build a nuclear bomb.
There is less than a week until a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency, when its board will discuss its latest report into Iran's nuclear programme.
The watchdog's report, which says it still cannot confirm there is no covert atomic activity in Iran, will then be forwarded to the United Nations Security Council.
Oil prices rose today, partly on traders' concerns the nuclear row could affect Iranian crude supplies.
The thinking behind Moscow's proposal is that Russia would enrich Iranian uranium to the level Iran says its needs to fuel power stations, but not to the high grade needed for a nuclear weapon.
Larijani was in talks with Igor Ivanov, head of the Russia's Security Council.
The previous two rounds involved less senior officials and the higher footing raised hopes Iran was taking the Russian proposal seriously, something the West at times has doubted.
''We are optimistic we can agree with our Iranian partners ... we think we can come to an agreement that a joint venture on the soil of the Russian Federation will be able to meet Iran's needs fully,'' Russian President Vladimir Putin told a news conference during a visit to Hungary.
But Larijani, on arrival at Moscow's Vnukovo airport, repeated his position that Tehran sees no need to stop work on enrichment.
Moscow, Washington and the EU 3 have said Iran returning to a moratorium on enrichment is a non-negotiable pre-condition of any deal. ''A moratorium is necessary if there is something dangerous, but all our activity is transparent and directed towards peaceful nuclear power,'' Larijani told reporters.
HOPES, DOUBTS US President George W Bush, on a visit to Iran's neighbour Afghanistan, said he backed Russia's efforts to find a compromise deal with Tehran.
''Iran must not have a nuclear weapon. The most destabilising thing that can happen in this region and in the world is for Iran to have a, develop a nuclear weapon,'' Bush said.
''And so we've joined with Russia as part of a diplomatic effort to solve this problem.'' Moscow sees the enrichment joint venture as a way out of confrontation, but diplomats in Europe and the United States say Tehran is just playing for time.
Tehran said after the last round of talks with Russian officials it had a ''basic'' agreement with Russia about the scheme. However, the key stumbling block -- Iran's insistence it will keep enriching at home -- remains.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki stood by that position, but said there was still room for compromise.
''We are in a position to cooperate, reach a comprehensive compromise with all the parties ... We are flexible,'' he said.
REUTERS SRS PM2233