Jean-Baptiste Mattei, a French foreign ministry spokesman, said he was surprised by the idea, which he called "totally new for us".

A senior Iranian official had earlier proposed that France enrich Iran's uranium on Iranian soil as part of the solution to the nuclear stand-off between Iran and the EU and the US.

Mohammad Saeedi, deputy chief of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation, told France-Info radio: "To be able to arrive at a solution, we have just had an idea. We propose that France create a consortium for the production in Iran of enriched uranium.

"That way France, through the companies Eurodif and Areva, could control in a tangible way our enrichment activities," he said.

Mohammad Saeedi has strongly
advocated a French role

Eurodif is a branch of Areva, a French state-controlled nuclear manufacturer, and was created in part with Iranian backing in the 1970s.

Several major powers - including France - are in a talks with Iran over its nuclear programme, which Tehran insists is aimed at producing electricity, but which many nations fear is aimed at making nuclear weapons.

Iran ignored a UN Security Council deadline in August to suspend uranium enrichment or face possible sanctions.

Saeedi gave no other details of his proposal, which appeared to be an Iranian initiative. An official at the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran referred all questions on the subject to the French side.

French priority

Mattei said that any proposals should wait until after negotiations are under way.

He reiterated France's proposal to kickstart talks through a "double suspension" - Iran would suspend enrichment and, in exchange, would not be referred to the Security Council for sanctions.

"The priority for us is to have negotiations" between Ali Larijani, the Iranian nuclear negotiator, and Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, Mattei said.

Solana gave a cautious response to Saeedi's proposal.

"That is something we have to analyse in greater detail," Solana said on the sidelines of an EU defence ministers' meeting in Levi, Finland.

Areva clarification

Charles Hufnagel, an Areva spokesman, said the company was not involved in any negotiations about a possible consortium for enriching Iranian uranium.

He added that any discussions involving nuclear co-operation with Iran would be at the government level. He would not comment on whether Areva would be ready in principle to lead such a consortium.

Iran's participation in Eurodif was reduced after the 1979 revolution, and now Iran has a "purely financial" stake of about 11 per cent through a joint French-Iranian company called Sofidif.

Eurodif's plant in the southeastern town of Pierrelate produces about a quarter of the world's enriched uranium, for use in nuclear reactors in several countries.