By Roula Khalaf in London
Saudi Arabia is calling on Iran to respond to an Arab proposal for a joint uranium enrichment plant outside the Middle East, the first regional attempt to defuse Tehran’s nuclear crisis.
Prince Saud al-Faisal, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, yesterday revealed the proposal by Arab Gulf states allied to the US, in a briefing to the FT and other British media.
First put to Iran a year ago, he said it would satisfy Tehran’s right to nuclear technology while providing assurances that Iran’s programme would not produce nuclear weapons.
“We have proposed a solution, which is to create a consortium for all users of enriched uranium in the Middle East,” Prince Saud said. “The consortium will distribute according to needs, give each plant its own necessary amount, and ensure no use of this enriched uranium for atomic weapons.”
The offer from the Gulf Co-operation Council (which groups Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait) follows the group’s decision to look at setting up its own civil nuclear programme. The move, an apparent response to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, raised concerns of a nuclear arms race in the region.
Tehran has in the past invited western and regional powers to join it in a consortium to enrich uranium on Iranian soil, balking at any suggestion that would shift all its enrichment capabilities – the most sensitive part of a nuclear programme – outside the country. Enriched uranium can be used in nuclear reactors or atomic weapons.
But although Iran found the GCC idea “interesting”, said Prince Saud, it had yet to respond to it. “I hope the Iranians will accept this proposal,” he said, suggesting that an enrichment plant could be created in a neutral country such as Switzerland. “We urge them to look at this also from the point of view of security of the region.”
Iran, he added, was a “great country” that believed it had not been allowed to exercise its proper role as a leader in the region. “We encourage Iran to look for its rightful role but a leader has to look after the interests of those it is leading. Escalation that could lead to conflict would benefit no one,” he said.
The GCC proposal underlines the states’ anxiety over Tehran’s nuclear stand-off, which could lead to a new military conflict in the region.
“A peaceful resolution [to the nuclear dispute] is the only conceivably good result,” Prince Saud said.
Political directors from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany are meeting in London today to discuss fresh sanctions against Tehran, which has so far refused to heed UN calls for a suspension of uranium enrichment.
But with China and Russia resisting more punitive measures, some diplomats fear deadlock at the UN will give hawks in Washington ammunition to push for military strikes against Iran.
Separately, the Saudi envoy warned on Thursday that there had to be a “significant amount of agreement” displayed by Palestinians and Israelis at the planned US-sponsored meeting later this year, reiterating the Saudi position that Riyadh would only attend if the conference can be successful.
He urged Israel to produce a “sincere” offer, which would include an end to Jewish settlement building and a halt to construction of the security wall. But he also stressed that progress on peace required reconciliation among warring Palestinian factions.
In a statement that highlighted Saudi opposition to the western isolation of the Islamist Hamas, he said the Arab League was working to revive a Palestinian national unity government, following the collapse of the previous administration in June and the takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007