TEHRAN -- Russia and China stepped up their efforts yesterday to persuade Iran to accept a compromise proposal for its nuclear program that may avert the threat of UN sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
Sergei Kiriyenko, head of the Russian atomic energy agency Rosatom, and Lu Guozeng, China's vice foreign minister, arrived in Tehran for three days of talks over Iran's nuclear impasse.
Time is running out for Iran to avoid formal referral to the UN Security Council at a board meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna on March 6.
The UN nuclear inspectors are expected to report next week that Iran has started producing enriched uranium on a very small scale, The New York Times reported today, quoting European officials.
Iran has offered the inspectors information about a shadowy uranium-processing project that Western intelligence has linked to warhead design, a senior diplomat in Vienna said.
The diplomat -- who is close to the IAEA and asked not to be named -- said IAEA inspectors would be in Tehran this weekend to check the information on the Green Salt Project.
Russian officials have played down expectations of a breakthrough at the Tehran talks, and analysts say Iran is in no mood to compromise.
High oil prices and US problems in Iraq mean that, for Iran, ''this is probably not the time to concede," the International Crisis Group think tank said in a new report.
The group said it expected Iran ''to press ahead, strengthening its position for the day genuine negotiations or confrontation with the US might begin."
Senior cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Emami Kashani told worshipers at Friday prayers in Tehran that Iran was telling the West: ''Nuclear energy is so entwined with our honor and dignity that we will never let your ominous plans be implemented."
Russia and China, both of whom have burgeoning energy and trade ties with Tehran and veto rights on the Security Council, do not favor the use of sanctions against Iran, which denies any intention of making nuclear arms.
But with Iran seemingly unmoved by the threat of Security Council referral or the possibility of military action, Moscow and Beijing have joined Western calls for an immediate halt in Iran's atomic fuel research and enrichment, which was resumed last month.
Kiriyenko said he would press ahead with the joint enrichment facility talks and visit the Gulf port city of Bushehr, where a Russian-built atomic reactor, Iran's first, is due to come onstream later this year, state television reported.
The negotiations follow a round of inconclusive talks in Moscow earlier this week over Russia's offer to enrich uranium for nuclear reactors, keeping nuclear technology needed for building bombs outside Iran.