UNITED NATIONS – With Iran refusing U.S. demands that it gut its uranium enrichment program, the two sides are now discussing a new proposal that would leave much of Tehran’s enriching machines in place but disconnected from feeds of uranium, diplomats told The Associated Press Saturday.

The talks have been stalled for months over Iran’s opposition to sharply reducing the size and output of centrifuges that can enrich uranium to levels needed for reactor fuel or weapons-grade material used in the core of nuclear warheads. Iran says its enrichment program is only for peaceful purposes, but Washington fears it could be used to make a bomb.

Time is running out before a Nov. 24 deadline and both sides are eager to break the impasse.

Ahead of the resumption of talks Friday, the New York Times reported that Washington was considering putting a new plan on the table that would focus on removing piping connecting the centrifuges.

That would allow the U.S. leeway on modifying demands that Iran cut the number of centrifuge machines from 19,000 to no more than 1,500.

Two diplomats told the AP that Tehran, which would gain an end to crippling nuclear-related sanctions as part of any deal, was initially non-committal at a bilateral meeting in August. But they say the proposal has now moved to being discussed at the talks Tehran is holding with the U.S. and five other powers, and that the Islamic Republic was listening closely.

Both diplomats demanded anonymity because their information is confidential.

While only a proposal, the plan would allow the Iranians to claim that they did not compromise on vows that they would never emasculate their enrichment capabilities, while keeping intact American demands that the program be downgraded to a point where it could not be quickly turned to making bombs.

But any plan could founder due to opposition to major compromises at the negotiating table from Iranian hardliners as well as U.S. congressional critics, and a group of 31 Republican senators quickly criticized the proposal.

Warning of “troubling nuclear concessions to Iran,” the Republican senators expressed grave concerns about the new initiative and the possible softening of Washington’ stance on other issues, in a letter dated Sept. 19 and sent to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Among the signatories was Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, who was behind many of the sanctions slapped on Iran over its nuclear defiance.

The talks bring Iran to the negotiating table with the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. That means U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterparts will likely join in, adding their diplomatic muscle to the meeting.

.Ahead of the talks, chief U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman acknowledged that the sides “remain far apart” on the size and scope of Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity.

Iran’s demands that it be allowed to keep its program at its present size and output are not acceptable and will not give Iran what it wants – an end to the nuclear-related sanctions choking its economy, she told reporters.

“We must be confident that any effort by Tehran to break out of its obligations will be so visible and time-consuming that the attempt would have no chance of success,” she said of Washington’s push for deep, long-lasting cuts.

Other contentious issues are what to do with an underground enrichment plant near the village of Fordo and with a reactor under construction near the city of Arak.

The U.S wants the Fordo facility converted to non-enrichment use because it’s heavily fortified against underground attack. And it wants the reactor converted to reduce to a minimum its production of plutonium, an alternate pathway to nuclear arms.

The deadline was extended to Nov. 24 after the sides failed to reach agreement by the end of July.


Associated Press congressional writer Bradley Klapper contributed from Washington.

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