WASHINGTON, Nov. 9 – The Bush administration and three European allies have approved a new offer to be made to Iran in a last-ditch effort to head off a confrontation over its suspected nuclear weapons program.
The proposal would permit Iran to conduct very limited nuclear activities on its own soil, but would move the process of enriching all of its uranium to Russia, American and European officials said.
The proposal was discussed at length on Tuesday during a meeting between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear monitoring agency, said officials who described their conversation.
Dr. ElBaradei, who won the Nobel Peace Prize this year, will take the proposal to Iran on behalf of Britain, Germany, France and the United States, the officials said. But one senior official deeply involved in developing the proposal said, “Our expectations are low that the Iranians will accept.”
The negotiations are being held in secret, and as the proposal has not yet been presented to the Iranians, the officials of various countries who discussed it would not agree to be identified.
Ms. Rice, the officials said, urged that Iran be given a deadline of two weeks for its response, before the I.A.E.A. board meets on Nov. 24.
Until recent days, American officials had said they planned to use that meeting to press the agency to take the next step on its September resolution declaring Iran guilty of “many failures and breaches of its obligations,” hoping to have the case referred to the United Nations Security Council for possible sanctions.
The September resolution passed 22 to 1, with only Venezuela voting with Iran. But 12 nations abstained, including Russia and China.
The new proposal has deeply divided the Bush administration because it includes a significant concession: Iran would be permitted to continue converting uranium into a gaseous form, known as UF6. The gas alone cannot be used for bomb fuel; but it can be poured into centrifuges for enrichment, resulting in a form of uranium that can be used for nuclear reactors or, at higher levels, for weapons.
American officials have accused Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons, but Iran has insisted that its nuclear program is entirely intended for peaceful purposes.
“The problem with this offer is that if the Iranians have a secret enrichment plant someplace that we don’t know about, we’re leaving them with the raw material they need,” said a senior American official who contends that the new proposal is flawed. “But the thinking was that the West has to show we are willing to break the logjam.”
When negotiations with the three European nations that have played the leading role in direct negotiations with Iran broke down this summer, Iran resumed converting its supplies of raw uranium into UF6, in violation of a “voluntary” agreement with the three nations. Until Wednesday, those nations had said the production of UF6 must be suspended before negotiations could resume.
The new proposal, officials from both Europe and the United States said, is an effort to give Iran a face-saving way out of its tense standoff by arguing that it has retained what it contends is its right to enrich uranium as a signer of the international Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but has simply chosen to do so at facilities in another country.
According to officials briefed on the discussion between Ms. Rice and Dr. ElBaradei on Tuesday at the State Department, the two talked about letting Iran take a financial stake in an enrichment facility in Russia. Moscow is already Iran’s main supplier of nuclear technology and has agreed to provide fuel for Iran’s new nuclear reactor at Bushehr. But under that accord, Russia has stipulated – under American pressure – that it must take back all spent nuclear fuel from Iran, so that it cannot be converted to bomb-grade material.
The proposal on the uranium program, they said, would follow the same model: Russia and other nations would ensure that the uranium shipped to Iran would not be usable in a weapon. All of the nuclear waste would also have to be shipped out of the country.
At a speech on Tuesday in Washington, Alexander Rumyantsev, the director of the Moscow’s Federal Atomic Energy Agency, reiterated Russia’s eagerness for an international enrichment facility, though he did not discuss the specific proposal involving Iran. He said it was the responsibility of all nations to “ensure the safety” of Iran’s facilities, and prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons power.
But the Russian attitude is more complex, as reflected in its decision to abstain from the I.A.E.A. vote in September condemning Iran’s 17-year-long effort to hide a series of nuclear activities from agency inspectors.
Both Dr. ElBaradei and President Bush have endorsed the idea of creating international sources of supply of nuclear fuel, so that nations have no excuse to start their own production facilities to enrich uranium or reprocess spent nuclear fuel into plutonium – the two main routes to building a weapon. But Mr. Bush’s plan would allow any nation that already engages in enrichment or reprocessing to continue to do so, which would exempt Japan, South Korea and other countries that clearly have the technology to build a weapon.
Dr. ElBaradei would have his agency control the new facilities, and he envisions all nations, including the United States and its allies, eventually giving up any production of nuclear fuel as well.
“We have to change the rules of the game,” he said in an interview in Boston on Friday, before he met Ms. Rice. “No country is comfortable giving up on any rights. My plan is to have an assured supply system,” he added, specifically referring to a need to work with Russia on developing such a system.
Iran has argued that it has the same rights to enrich as any other signer of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and has insisted that it will never give up that right. Mr. Bush has contended, however, that Iran – like North Korea – forfeited its rights by cheating on the treaty, secretly developing centrifuges and other technology that it hid from inspectors.
American and European officials differed Wednesday over who had come up with the proposal that Dr. ElBaradei will present to Iran. European officials said Ms. Rice was pressing Dr. ElBaradei to present the proposal to the Iranians. American officials said they were simply reacting to a European proposal that he had brought to them.