- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2008

GENEVA | Iran’s nuclear negotiator yielded no ground Saturday in talks, attended by a top U.S. official, on Western demands that Tehran freeze its nuclear program.

“It was a constructive meeting, but still we didn’t get the answer to our questions,” said the European Union’s chief foreign-policy envoy, Javier Solana, after the one-day talks.

Mr. Solana said he was still awaiting word from Iran on a proposed package of incentives for Tehran to give up its nuclear program, and he set a two-week time frame for a response before pursuing new U.N. sanctions.

“We hope very much we get the answer, and we hope it will be done in a couple of weeks,” Mr. Solana said.

In the meantime, he said, “We refrain from Security Council resolutions and [call] for Iran to refrain from nuclear activity, including the installation of new centrifuges” for processing uranium.

Such a step, Mr. Solana said, “is something very sensible.”

Saturday’s talks included for the first time a senior U.S. official, Undersecretary of State William J. Burns, whose presence sent a message that Washington is serious in its search for a diplomatic solution.

Mr. Burns did not speak with reporters after the meeting. U.S. officials have said that Mr. Burns would attend the talks just to listen to Iran’s response and not to negotiate.

The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the United States, Britain, China, France and Russia - plus Germany, a group known as “P-5 plus 1,” have offered a package of political, security and economic incentives in exchange for Tehran halting its nuclear activity.

Keyvan Imani, a member of the Iranian delegation, said going into the talks Saturday that Tehran was not prepared to budge on enrichment.

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

Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili said after the meeting that the way forward is through “constructive cooperation based on collective obligations.”

“There are points in common and points that are not in common,” he said. “We have agreed to discuss this.”

Iran says its nuclear work is for peaceful power generation, not nuclear weapons, as Western leaders suspect, and it has defied three sets of U.N. sanctions demanding it cease its program.

Last month, Mr. Solana carried to Tehran a letter signed by the foreign ministers of the P-5 plus 1 countries to their Iranian counterpart, Manuchehr Mottaki, in which they reiterated that “formal negotiations can start as soon as Iran’s enrichment-related and processing activities are suspended.”

Senior P-5 plus 1 diplomatic sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the first step toward negotiations remains for Iran to agree to freeze its nuclear program. In return, no additional U.N. sanctions would be imposed.

This would open the way to “pre-negotiations,” which would last about six weeks and define the parameters of future talks, they said.

Senior diplomatic sources close to the talks said that the return of billions of dollars of Iranian assets frozen in the United States for nearly three decades would also be on the table.

Shahram Chubin, director of studies at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, said the threat of new U.N. sanctions and concern over the possibility of an attack by the United States or Israel is behind the decision by Iran to engage diplomatically.

“They’re scared it might happen,” he said. “They don’t want to appear to have rejected the offer made by Solana in Tehran,” Mr. Chubin said.

He said in an interview he thinks Tehran “has changed tactics, but not strategy” on the nuclear issue, adding that stalling the issue could also give Tehran more time to “split the EU and get the Chinese and the Russians on board.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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