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Iran faces a new effort to halt nuclear plans

VIENNA -- Leading US, Russian, Chinese, and European officials plan to agree this week on a package meant to reward Iran if it gives up uranium enrichment -- and to punish it if it does not, diplomats said yesterday.

Agreement by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, along with Germany, could open the way for sanctions if Tehran refuses to abandon technology that can be used to make the core of nuclear warheads.

The meeting of foreign ministers was set for Thursday in Vienna, said the diplomats, who declined to be named.

Tehran appeared unimpressed: One official repeated that Iran is permitted to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Another announced that his country had experimented in technology that can be used to make the hydrogen bomb.

Tehran's goal was recognition of ``the essential right of Iran to have nuclear technology," Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said while visiting Malaysia.

State television quoted a nuclear official, Sadat Hosseini, as saying his country ``is competing with the advanced world in the field of producing nuclear energy through fusion."

Fusion is the main principle behind the hydrogen bomb, which can be hundreds of times more powerful than atomic weapons that use fission.

In a hydrogen bomb, radiation from a nuclear fission explosion sets off a fusion reaction responsible for a powerful blast and radioactivity.

Peaceful uses of fusion are still at the experimental stage.

The European Union, the United States, Japan, China, Russia and others hope to set up a demonstration plant in the southern French town of Cadarache, northeast of Marseille, in about 2040.

Officials project that 10 percent to 20 percent of the world's energy might come from fusion by the end of the century.

Concern about Iran's nuclear aims has been focused on fears that it may be trying to make a fission-type nuclear weapon by enriching uranium to weapons-grade level. Hosseini's comments were likely to add to concern about Tehran's interest in fusion.

But a former UN nuclear inspector, David Albright, said the announcement was probably ``not very worrisome."

``They like to pretend they are competing but their program is [probably] pretty rudimentary," said Albright, who runs the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security.

Any package foreign ministers approve on Thursday would then be presented to Tehran by France, Britain and Germany.

The Security Council gave Iran until the end of April to suspend all such activities. Instead of complying, Iran announced last month that it had enriched uranium and was researching efforts to speed output of the material.

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