The US and Europe have agreed on a compromise plan to accept expanded nuclear activities by Iran, but only if the enrichment process -- a possible pathway to nuclear arms -- is moved to Russia, senior officials and diplomats said on Thursday.
If accepted by Iran, the proposal could end a tug-of-war over whether to refer the Islamic republic to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions.
The officials and diplomats, who demanded anonymity in exchange for discussing the strategy, said the plan would allow Iran to continue converting raw uranium into the gas that is spun by centrifuges into enriched uranium.
But actual enrichment would take place in Russia, they said.
Depending on its level, enrichment can be used to generate energy -- Iran's stated interest -- or make nuclear weapons -- something the US and its allies say Tehran wants to do.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed hopes that a deal with Iran could be reached over its nuclear program. But she would not confirm that the US would back the deal with Europe as described by the officials and diplomats.
"There is no US-European proposal to the Iranians," Rice said. "I want to say that categorically. There isn't and there won't be."
"We do hope that if there is a way for the Iranians to accept a way forward that would give confidence that they are not in fact trying to seek nuclear weapons under cover of civilian nuclear power that they would take that," Rice said.
In August, Iran resumed uranium conversion. That prompted Britain, France and Germany to break off talks with Tehran meant to dispel fears about its nuclear agenda. It also led a September meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) 35-nation board to approve a resolution clearing the way for Iran's referral to the UN Security Council at a Nov. 24 board session.
Rice predicted the US has sufficient support at the IAEA to send Iran before the Security Council for possible sanctions, but a deal ahead of the session later this month could avert a vote. The IAEA is probing nearly 18 years of covert Iranian nuclear activities, including experiments that could be used in weapons development, which were revealed more than three years ago.
Tehran recently agreed to accelerate cooperation with IAEA inspectors to blunt the threat of Security Council action.
Publicly, the US and France, Britain and Germany, which are representing the 25-nation EU in the talks, have insisted Iran needs to stop all enrichment-related activity -- including uranium conversion -- to banish the prospect of Security Council referral.