Iran has reached a "basic" agreement with Russia on jointly enriching uranium, officials said on Sunday but there was no immediate sign that it would suspend home-grown enrichment to allay fears that it is developing nuclear weapons.
It was unclear what this basic agreement involved and both Russian and Iranian officials identified serious obstacles to a fully fledged deal.
It principally concerned a suspension of Teheran's home-grown uranium enrichment work, the main demand of Western powers who are threatening to press for UN sanctions.
The original Russian proposal had been for Iran's uranium to be enriched in Russia to defuse suspicions that Iran might divert some nuclear fuel into a weapons program.
However, Iran has always insisted upon its right to enrich the uranium it mines in its central desert on its own soil, and it was unclear how the original Russian proposal could be tailored to satisfy Iran's demand.
"Regarding this joint venture, we have reached a basic agreement. Talks to complete this package will continue in the coming days in Russia," Iranian nuclear chief Gholamreza Aghazadeh told reporters in the southern Iranian port of Bushehr.
Sergei Kiriyenko, head of Russia's atomic energy agency Rosatom, speaking at a joint news conference with Aghazadeh, said Iran still had to take "serious steps" before the deal could be completed.
He was not specific about what these steps would be, but an unnamed Russian official in Bushehr told the Interfax news agency that the deal could only go ahead if Iran suspended its own uranium enrichment.
Teheran has repeatedly refused to do this.
Aghazadeh also stipulated that Iran would be setting an unspecified "precondition" to the deal.
One EU diplomat said this precondition was almost certain to be Teheran insisting upon its right to enrich its own uranium.
"Their idea of accepting the Russian proposal is to be able to enrich in Russia and Iran, not just Russia," he said on condition of anonymity.
Europe and Washington have said they could not accept such a compromise.
Konstantin Kosachev, head of the foreign relations committee in Russia's lower house of parliament, the State Duma, said the chances of an agreement were about 50-50.
"(Teheran) is now using the tactic of dragging out talks as long as possible. I do not think we can expect Iran to clarify its position any time soon. I would rather suggest that this will not happen before March 6," he told Interfax.
March 6 is the date when the board of the United Nations' watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), meets in Vienna to discuss the IAEA's latest report on Iran's nuclear program.
(China Daily February 27, 2006)