By Louis Charbonneau
MUNICH, Germany, Feb 10 (Reuters) - A small group of European nations are weighing a compromise proposal to put to Iran in the hope that it can end a long nuclear standoff between Tehran and the West, European diplomats say.
The proposal is expected to be made by Swiss diplomats to Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, possibly on the sidelines of a Munich security conference under way in the Bavarian capital, the diplomats said on condition of anonymity.
The proposal is that Iran would be permitted to keep its current uranium enrichment infrastructure of several hundred centrifuges. Iran could run the centrifuges but would not feed any processed uranium hexafluoride (UF6) into the machines while negotiating a package of incentives with six world powers.
"The idea is that Iran could spin its centrifuges dry, that is in a vacuum but without any uranium," a European diplomat familiar with the proposal told Reuters.
The West fears Iran is developing nuclear weapons under cover of a civilian energy programme and have demanded that it suspend its nuclear enrichment programme, which can make fuel for weapons or power plants.
In June the United States, Germany, Britain, France, Russia and China offered to negotiate a package of incentives with Tehran if it first suspended its enrichment programme.
Iran, however, refused to suspend the programme, insisting its nuclear intentions are entirely peaceful.
Although the Iranians would probably be open to such a proposal, several Western diplomats said neither the United States nor Britain would find the idea very attractive.
The idea has only been circulated at the highest levels among a small group of European nations, among them European Union president Germany and neutral Switzerland.
Some European powers say they have not been informed of it.
"No one has come to us and asked ‘is this an acceptable proposal?’," a diplomat from a large EU member state who deals with the Iranian issue told Reuters.
An EU diplomat said it was far too early to say whether the plan was realistic or not.
One European diplomat said the Swiss, who first circulated this idea last year, had offered to be an intermediary between the EU and Iran. Tensions between the EU and Tehran have increased since Iran began enriching uranium last year.
The U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was asked to evaluate the proliferation risks of letting Iran dry run its centrifuges.
The IAEA concluded in an internal report obtained by Reuters that Iran could gain useful technical knowledge from dry operation of centrifuges, including information about the durability of the machinery and trouble-shooting.
Larijani is expected to have meetings on Sunday in Munich with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
The proposal was not due to be floated at the Solana meeting, said one EU diplomat, who said Solana wanted simply to tell Larijani the door was open for Tehran to return to negotiations.
There could be other problems with the proposal. Iran has so far refused to take the first step of a suspending its enrichment activities, which the Western powers have made a condition of any negotiations with the Islamic republic.
It was unclear if Iran was ready to halt its enrichment first, before the Security Council would consider suspending sanctions against Iran approved unanimously in December.
If they did not agree to a suspension first, it is unlikely the proposal, which the Swiss first circulated last year, would be acceptable to the United States or EU, diplomats said. (Additional reporting by Francois Murphy in Paris, Mark Heinrich in Vienna and Mark John in Munich)