Putin optimistic about talks with Iran

Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed optimism that his country could strike an agreement with Iran over its disputed nuclear program and Iran 's top diplomat pledged flexibility as a delegation headed from Tehran to Moscow for crucial talks Wednesday. "We are optimists ... It's quite possible for us to reach an agreement on the establishment of a joint venture on Russian territory to enrich uranium for Iranian nuclear energy needs," Putin told reporters Tuesday on a visit to Hungary.

In Tokyo , Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said that talks would focus on the location of enrichment and the length of the agreement. Russia and Iran held talks last week but made little apparent progress on the plan, which envisages enriching uranium for Iran on Russian territory to ensure the nuclear fuel cannot be diverted for atomic bombs.

"The Russian plan is on the table," Mottaki said Wednesday. He added: "We are flexible." The plan still appeared to be hamstrung, however, over Iran 's refusal to restore a freeze on its domestic uranium activities, a condition that Moscow says is essential for its plan. Mottaki was quoted by Japan 's Kyodo News agency on Tuesday as saying that Tehran would enrich its own uranium even if the deal with Russia goes ahead.

Mottaki also said he didn't envision a very long-term agreement with Russia . "There is a factor of timing, it means for how long this project will be continued," he said. "Definitely in this item, Iran insists as short as possible. These are the main debates from my understanding, and we are trying to reach some compromise."

Top Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani was expected to lead the Iranian delegation to Moscow , arriving just six days before a crucial board of governors' meeting at the International Atomic Energy Agency. Monday's meeting of the Vienna-based U.N. nuclear watchdog could start a process leading to punishment by the U.N. Security Council, which has the authority to impose sanctions on Iran .

Further action has been deferred until the end of next week's meeting at the insistence of veto-wielding council members Russia and China , which have close economic and political ties with Iran .

Moscow 's offer to have Iran 's uranium enrichment program in Russia has been backed by the United States and the European Union as a way to provide more assurances that Tehran 's atomic program could not be diverted to build weapons. Iran insists its nuclear program is only to generate power, but many in the West fear Iran is aiming to develop atomic bombs.

On Sunday, the Iranian nuclear chief said after talks with his Russian counterpart in Iran that they had agreed in principle to Moscow 's enrichment plan. But Western diplomats dismissed the statement as an Iranian spin effort and an attempt to split the global community. A confidential International Atomic Energy Agency report made available to The Associated Press on Monday said that an investigation lasting more than three years has not revealed a secret nuclear weapons program in Iran, but cautioned that a lack of sufficient cooperation from the Iranian side meant the agency could not rule it out, reports the AP.

N.U.

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