WASHINGTON - The United States on Friday for the first time accepted that Iran could develop civilian nuclear programs, backing an EU proposal that would allow Tehran to pursue atomic power in exchange for giving up fuel work.
In a compromise that completed a gradual shift in U.S. policy, Washington acquiesced because it believes the EU offer has enough safeguards to prevent Iran diverting its civilian work into making nuclear bombs.
"We support the (Europeans') effort and the proposal they have put forward to find a diplomatic solution to this problem and to seek an end to Iran's nuclear weapons program," State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters.
The U.S. acquiescence over Iran is in contrast with its stance in talks with North Korea, which it insists cannot have any nuclear development for fear Pyongyang would build atomic bombs under the guise of a civilian power program.
The shift also comes despite long-held U.S. worries that allowing a civilian program could help Iran develop its nuclear technology and know-how so that, if it ever breaks any EU agreement, it would be closer to acquiring a bomb.
A U.S. official said the EU offer helped allayed American fears.
"There's a certainty and an ability to ensure that none of the nuclear fuel that would be involved is diverted to an illicit nuclear weapons program," said the official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to discuss details of the proposal.
The EU - represented by Britain, France and Germany - has held talks for two years with Iran to find a compromise between arch foes Iran and the United States.
Washington accuses Iran of trying to covertly build a nuclear bomb. Tehran says its programs are peaceful and that it has the right to convert and enrich uranium, which can be used for power generation or to build bombs.
The U.S. opposition to nuclear power plants has eroded this year.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has increasingly pointed to a power plant deal between Russia and Iran as an example of how to limit the risk from a civilian program because Moscow controls the fuel.
But while the United States had accepted such an arrangement under the existing deal, until Friday it had not explicitly agreed to the principle that Iran could have a civilian program.
The EU offered to declare its "Willingness to support Iran to develop a safe, economically viable and proliferation-proof civil nuclear power.”
The bloc offered to guarantee supplies of fuel for light-water nuclear power reactors, but insisted Iran returned to the supplier all spent fuel, which can also be used in atomic weaponry.
"We encourage Iran to consider positively the EU's offer, “ Casey said.