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Iran’s Delay on Enrichment Deal Seen as Bid to Avoid Sanctions

Iran's Delay on Enrichment Deal Seen as Bid to Avoid SanctionsBy Peter Finn

The Washington Post, MOSCOW — Iran continued Tuesday to parry a Russian offer to enrich uranium on Russian soil for its nuclear energy program, putting off any move to finalize a deal because it has no real incentive to bend yet, according to diplomats and Russian analysts.

Instead, the analysts say, Iranian negotiators are probing for divisions within the informal coalition of Russia, China, the United States and the European Union that is opposed to Iran developing a nuclear weapons program.

The Iranian delegation left Moscow on Tuesday after two days of inconclusive talks at the Kremlin, although the head of the delegation, Ali Hosseinitash, deputy secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, described the discussions as "positive and constructive."

"We have decided to continue discussions," said Hosseinitash, speaking on Iranian television from Moscow. "There are elements in these negotiations that give us grounds for hope that we will reach an agreement."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in televised remarks: "I think it is too early to speak of either failure or success." The talks are scheduled to continue this week in Tehran.

Under Russia’s proposal, which is backed by its three coalition partners, Russia would enrich uranium at a facility here and deliver it to Iran for use in its nuclear power plants. That would remove a key process in the development of a nuclear program from Iranian hands but still allow Tehran to develop the peaceful energy program it says it wants. Iran insists that controlling the nuclear fuel cycle from start to finish is its sovereign right.

Analysts say talks with Russia are likely to continue inconclusively until Russia and China are forced to make a decision at the U.N. Security Council on whether to punish Iran by imposing sanctions.

"Iran is looking for weak spots and trying to play on the natural differences between the parties," said Vladimir Sazhin, an Iran expert at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow. "When Iran finally says no to the Russian proposal, that’s when Russia will make its choice, and, I think, it will not be in favor of Iran."

Some Russian analysts say they believe the Kremlin will not countenance a break with Iran, a longtime ally with which it has close economic ties. Protracted negotiations would allow it to avoid a decision it does not want to make, they said.

"You may have a long stalemate where Iran and Russia say an agreement is possible but the technical details are complex and are still being worked out," said Sergei Mikheyev, a foreign policy analyst at the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. "It’s important for Iran to drag this on so the West can’t draw a line. And it’s not advantageous for Russia to take a tough stand."

Russia has so far said that it does not support sanctions against Iran, and officials refuse to say what, if anything, might lead the country to reconsider that policy. Iran appears to be banking on a breakdown in the coalition now aligned against it, probably over the need for or nature of any punitive action considered by the Security Council. Western diplomats here said that their countries are acutely aware of the need to keep Russia, as well as China, on board and that any measures to isolate Iran would evolve gradually.

Russia has already supported a decision by the 35-nation board of the International Atomic Energy Agency to report Iran to the Security Council. That decision came with an understanding that the council would not take any action until after an IAEA meeting on March 6 at which the head of the agency will issue a report on Iran.

The decision by the IAEA board prompted Iran to resume uranium enrichment for what it said were research purposes, abandoning a two-year-old internationally negotiated suspension.

China called on Iran on Tuesday to restore the moratorium on enrichment.

"China hopes Iran will restore suspension of all activities relating to uranium enrichment and create the conditions for appropriately resolving the Iran nuclear issue through peaceful negotiations," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said at a news conference in Beijing.

Correspondent Edward Cody in Beijing contributed to this report.