Saudi Arabia has proposed that countries in the Middle East establish a consortium for enriching uranium as a possible way to defuse the nuclear crisis with Iran.

The proposal calls for peaceful nuclear projects by a consortium of Middle Eastern countries including Iran but excluding nuclear enrichment. The actual processing of the material, according to the Saudi proposal, would take place in a neutral country such as Switzerland.

The enrichment process would be carried out at an installation to be built by the consortium, and its activities would be monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

King Abdullah's proposal is similar to the Russian offer that uranium enrichment for Iran's nuclear reactors be carried out in Russia, and that shipments of the fissile material be made whenever that is necessary.

The Russian proposal also called for a gradual return of enrichment activities to Iran, following an agreed period, and in line with plans that would have to be approved by the IAEA. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rejected the offer.

This rejection was one of the reasons Iran's nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, stepped down last month. Larijani's resignation shed further light on the depth of disagreement in the Iranian leadership about the country's nuclear program.

On one side of the spectrum stands Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who heads the Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Council, two powerful bodies in Iran's political structure. Rafsanjani, a former president of Iran and a political rival of Ahmadinejad, is opposed to the confrontational approach of the current president on the nuclear issue.

For his part, Ahmadinejad believes that the United States is too preoccupied with other international commitments and drained by its military effort in Iraq and Afghanistan to seriously consider striking Iran.

The Saudi king would like to leverage this internal Iranian debate to further his proposal, which met with opposition in Iran and Moscow, but which is supported by Washington, Paris and London.