"I am sure that today we are closer to a settlement, to a solution, than a while ago," President Mohammad Khatami said after 90 minutes of talks with French President Jacques Chirac. Reuters
By Sophie Louet
PARIS - Iran and EU powers have made progress in talks on ensuring Tehran's nuclear program cannot be used for weapons, Iran's president said Tuesday, singling out France for special praise.
"I am sure that today we are closer to a settlement, to a solution, than a while ago," President Mohammad Khatami said after 90 minutes of talks with French President Jacques Chirac.
"Iran has proposed an overall plan to resolve this problem. The European reaction, in particular that of France, has been very open.
"I hope that during the April 29 meeting that, thanks to French support, but equally due to the welcome given the overall plan, we will be able to make even more substantial progress."
Senior officials from Britain, France, Germany and Iran are to meet in London later this month to continue discussing Iran's proposal that it be allowed to keep a small enrichment facility that would be closely watched by the U.N. nuclear watchdog.
Chirac spokesman Jerome Bonnafont said the French leader had told Khatami the Europeans wanted a solution "that establishes the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program."
Until now the EU3, backed by a Washington that suspects Iran of using civilian atomic power as cover for a weapons program, have been pressing Iran to terminate and dismantle its uranium enrichment program.
Diplomats with access to the Iran-EU talks said on condition of anonymity that the French were split -- with some top officials advocating allowing Iran a small enrichment facility that could not produce large amounts of bomb-grade uranium.
Others in the French camp are more cautious and agree with the British that Iran should not be permitted to run an enrichment plant, as it would give them the know-how to run a secret facility away from U.N. observation, the diplomats said.
The Germans, the diplomats said, are not as hard-line as the British but would also prefer to reject the Iranian request.
"The French are the most flexible from the point of view of Iran," a European diplomat close to the talks told Reuters.
At talks in Paris last month, both sides deferred discussion of Iran's suggestion that it be allowed to keep 500 centrifuges, the machines that enrich uranium, diplomats said.
This 'pilot cascade' would be too small for serious arms-related enrichment, experts say, and closely watched by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The uranium would be enriched so that it contained no more than 3.5 percent of the uranium-235 atom -- well below the 90 percent needed for bombs.
Iran had pushed the idea of such a plan for months but the EU rejected it, saying it would not provide "objective guarantees" Iran's program was not aimed at making weapons.
"The Iranians have been offering this for a long time. What's new is that the EU is thinking about it," a diplomat with access to the negotiations said.
Khatami's visit brought 8,000 demonstrators, organisers said, onto the streets of Paris to protest Western connivance with the Islamic republic.
"Receiving Khatami in France encourages the Mullah's regime to increase human rights violations and continue its efforts to obtain nuclear weapons," said Shahin Gobadi, a spokesman for the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
The exile opposition group, which wants to oust Iran's clerical rulers, has acted as a whistle-blower on Tehran's nuclear program.