Associated Press: With pressure building to curb Iran's nuclear program, top disarmament officials from major countries gathered Thursday for two days of meetings that the United States says will focus on Tehran in the campaign to stop the spread of atomic weapons. Associated Press

By ALEXANDER G. HIGGINS

GENEVA (AP) - With pressure building to curb Iran's nuclear program, top disarmament officials from major countries gathered Thursday for two days of meetings that the United States says will focus on Tehran in the campaign to stop the spread of atomic weapons.

The Group of Eight session comes as threats mount to haul Iran before the UN Security Council unless it renounces uranium enrichment, which the United States and other countries say will lead to nuclear weapons.

The discussions will give the officials a chance to sort out differences over the approach to next week's meeting of the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which could trigger Security Council action.

U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton, a leading critic of Iran, is hosting the Geneva session with his counterparts from Russia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan, who were holding separate consultations following their arrival Thursday. The full meeting is planned for Friday.

The United States wants the IAEA to declare Iran in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which could force Security Council action. European countries have urged less precipitate action.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has demanded that Iran renounce uranium enrichment, which the United States regards as a step toward the development of nuclear weapons.

Highly enriched uranium can be used to make nuclear weapons. Iran insists it only is interested in nuclear power, which can be created with lower levels of enrichment.

The British government said Wednesday that, to avoid Security Council action, Iran would have to fulfil its pledge to suspend uranium enrichment activity by November.

The United States has repeatedly complained about Russia building a nuclear power plant under a formal contract with Iran, saying that spent nuclear fuel from the plant could be used to help Iran develop nuclear weapons.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reportedly claimed Thursday that "spent nuclear fuel will be returned to Russia, and this will ensure it will be impossible to use the power plant to make nuclear weapons."

The ITAR-Tass news agency quoted Lavrov as saying that a new IAEA report found progress in resolving questions it had about Iran's program and "expresses the certainty the differences will be settled in the near future."

Lavrov said his country was determined to continue its nuclear-power co-operation with Iran.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder expressed concern Wednesday about the tensions between Iran and the West.

"This conflict is highly alarming," Schroeder told the lower house of parliament.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in an interview Wednesday that the world was doing too little to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons and that Israel was taking its own measures to protect itself.

"There is no doubt" that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, he told the Jerusalem Post. He said Israel was especially threatened because Iran has tested a long-range missile than could reach Israel.

In 1981, Israel bombed Iraq's nuclear reactor to stop what it said were Iraqi plans to make atomic weapons.

The Geneva gathering is a followup to an agreement reached at the G-8 summit meeting in Sea Island, Ga., in June, which Prime Minister Paul Martin attended. U.S. officials said the meetings are being held about once a month in different locations.

The summit countries agreed to address proliferation problems and expand export controls worldwide, working "together to address the threat posed by" North Korea and Iran.

Developments on the Korean peninsula also make that region a prime topic for discussion at the Geneva meeting. The United States has been trying to negotiate an end to North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

But North Korea has said that recent South Korean disclosures could lead to a "nuclear arms race" in Northeast Asia.

South Korea said last week that it conducted a secret uranium-enrichment experiment in 2000, and said Thursday that it extracted a tiny amount of plutonium in a nuclear experiment in 1982.

The U.S. ally acknowledged "differences" with the IAEA over its activities. The UN agency is charged with verifying compliance with the nonproliferation treaty, which permits only peaceful uses of the atom.

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