- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 19, 2008

UPDATED:

GENEVA (AP) — Tehran on Saturday ruled out freezing its enrichment program, casting doubt over the sense of key nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers less than an hour after they began.

The talks with the U.S. in attendance for the first time had raised expectations of possible compromise on a formula that would have had Iran agree to stop expanding its enrichment activities. In exchange, the six powers, including the five permanent United Nations Security Council members, would hold off on passing new U.N. sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

But the comments from Keyvan Imani, a member of the Iranian delegation, appeared to indicate that Tehran was not prepared to budge on enrichment at least going into the talks.

“Suspension there is no chance for that,” he told reporters gathered in the courtyard of Geneva’s ornate City Hall, the venue of the negotiations.

The presence of Undersecretary of State William Burns at the talks the first instance of the Americans attending such meetings had led to hopes Iran would compromise on suspension.

The enrichment issue is key because the activity can produce either nuclear fuel or the material used in the fissile core of warheads. Iran has defied three sets of U.N. sanctions demanding it cease its program, saying it has a right to its peaceful uses under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. But there is growing concern the Islamic Republic might want to generate the fissile core of warheads instead.

Recent Iranian statements suggest Tehran is looking to improve ties with the United States, with officials speaking positively of deliberations by the U.S. administration to open an interests section an informal diplomatic presence in Tehran after closing its embassy decades ago.

Although the U.S. says the Geneva talks focus only on the nuclear issue, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Friday they could also result in agreements to open a U.S. interest-protection bureau and have direct flights between the two nations.

U.S. interests in Iran are now represented by the Swiss Embassy in Tehran.

Iran and the United States broke off diplomatic relations after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Official contacts between the two countries are extremely rare.

Imani said Tehran had not yet received a proposal from the U.S. on opening a representation but would “study it positively” if it did.

But Imani downplayed the presence of Burns although the Americans had previously said they would not sit with the Iranians on nuclear issues unless Tehran was ready to stop all enrichment activity.

“He (is just) a member of the delegation” of the six countries engaging Iran on the nuclear issue, he said.

Imani also denied that the “freeze-for-freeze” formula a stop to Iranian enrichment growth in exchange for no new U.N. sanctions was formally on the agenda of the Geneva talks, saying the two sides were meeting to discuss common points of their diverging plans to ease nuclear tensions.

The U.S. and its five partners remain committed to getting a full halt to Iranian enrichment. Still, Burns’ decision to attend the Geneva talks shows that Washington may accept “freeze-for-freeze” something less than full suspension, at least as a first step.

“Freeze-for-freeze” envisions a six-week commitment from both sides. Preliminary talks meant to lead to formal nuclear negotiations would start, Iran could continue enrichment but only at its present level, and the U.S. and its allies would stop pushing for new U.N. sanctions.

If this results in the start of formal talks, the Iranians would stop all enrichment temporarily. Those talks, in turn, are meant to secure Tehran’s commitment for an indefinite ban on enrichment.

On the eve of the meeting, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said the talks themselves give hope “that there can be a peaceful solution” to the standoff over Tehran’s nuclear program.

But he also told reporters he expects no quick changes from Iran, which has said “the essentials” an apparent reference to suspending uranium enrichment will not be on the table.

Associated Press Writer Bradley S. Klapper contributed to this report from Geneva.

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Friday that the United States still has conditions for negotiating with Iran even though the Bush administration is sending a senior diplomat to weekend talks with an Iranian nuclear envoy.

She said the shift in policy is a signal the administration is serious about diplomacy, but does not mean Washington is ready for open-ended discussions with Iran. Such talks can only occur after Tehran halts activities that could lead to development of atomic weapons.

Miss Rice spoke a day before the State Department’s third-ranking diplomat, William Burns, is to attend a meeting in Geneva with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator. The U.S. previously had shunned such gatherings, demanding that Iran first suspend its enrichment and reprocessing of uranium.

“It should be very clear to everyone that the United States has a condition for the beginning of negotiations with Iran, and that condition remains the verifiable suspension of Iran’s enrichment and reprocessing activities,” she told reporters at the State Department. “That remains the U.S. position and it will continue to be the U.S. position.”

The United States and its five partners - Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia - have insisted all along that they want a full halt to Iranian enrichment.

Mr. Burns, undersecretary of state, will attend the meeting Saturday, formally led by European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili, where Iran is expected to deliver its formal response to a package of incentives being offered the country in exchange for the suspension.

American officials have insisted that Mr. Burns’ presence will be a “one-time event” and he will listen to the Iranians but will not be negotiating.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, speaking in Ankara, Turkey, on Friday, said the talks could also result in agreements to open a U.S. interests section in Iran and establish direct flights between the two nations.

U.S. interests in Iran are now represented by the Swiss Embassy in Tehran.

Iran and the United States broke off diplomatic relations after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Official contacts between the two countries are extremely rare.

Tensions over Iran’s nuclear activities began five years ago, with revelations that it had hidden enrichment activities for nearly two decades. A U.S. intelligence estimate last year said Iran tried to make nuclear weapons at least until 2003 - allegations Tehran vehemently denies.

Iran suspended enrichment that year but resumed in 2005 after rejecting EU incentives for a long-term halt to enrichment. The Geneva talks are based on a revamped version of the 2005 incentive package.

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