Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Iran said yesterday that it was ready for “serious negotiations” over its disputed nuclear programs, but showed no sign it accepted the Bush administration’s bottom-line demand to halt all uranium enrichment before any talks can begin.

The United States and its allies were still studying Tehran’s long-awaited response to an incentives package designed to halt what many think is a drive by the Islamic republic to acquire nuclear weapons.

The Iranian reply, hand-delivered by top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani in Tehran yesterday, sets up a potential confrontation at the U.N. Security Council, where the United States is expected to press its reluctant partners for fresh sanctions against Tehran. Russia, China and European Union powers France, Germany and Britain are working with the United States on the Iran crisis.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino declined comment on the details of the Iranian response, which had not been released as of last night. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reportedly has interrupted a vacation to monitor the negotiations.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said the detailed Iranian note deserved “detailed and careful analysis,” but European diplomats briefed on the reply and Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency said Tehran had rejected an enrichment freeze as a precondition for starting the talks.

Despite Mr. Larijani’s proposal for further talks, one top U.S. nuclear specialist said the Iranian offer was clearly a rejection of the U.S. stand.

“The bottom line is that the one thing we required Iran to do — suspend uranium-enrichment programs now — is the one thing the Iranians say they won’t do,” said Jon Wolfsthal, nonproliferation fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Anything that wasn’t an absolute ‘yes’ constitutes a ‘no,’ and the question now becomes: Where does the United States go from here and can it bring its partners along,” he added.

Iran insists its nuclear programs are for peaceful civilian uses, but the United States and its European allies say it has run a secret military nuclear program for nearly two decades. With the Bush administration’s acquiescence, the European Union in June offered Iran a package of trade, security and diplomatic concessions — including direct U.S.-Iranian talks — in exchange for a freeze on uranium enrichment.

The Security Council last month set a deadline of Aug. 31 for Iran to give a final response to the package. John R. Bolton, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, called the offer “very generous,” and said Washington was prepared to press for new sanctions if Iran does not accept the enrichment freeze.

“I think we will be prepared to move to submit elements of a resolution to the [Security Council] very quickly,” he told reporters in New York. “It really is a test for the council, and we’ll see how it responds.”

But Mr. Wolfsthal and others said the administration likely will face resistance from Russia and China for harsher penalties. Both have extensive energy and economic ties with Iran, and both could argue that Tehran’s qualified response yesterday is enough to justify more talks.

In Beijing today, China’s foreign ministry urged Iran to consider international concerns over its nuclear program and be constructive, but added all sides should remain calm.

The foreign ministry said it had received Iran’s response to a package of proposals to resolve the nuclear standoff with the West and was “conscientiously” studying it.

“The Chinese side hopes Iran earnestly considers the concerns of the international community, and takes the necessary constructive steps,” the ministry said in a faxed statement.

Top Iranian officials, including supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have sent signals in recent days that they would not accept as a pre-condition the uranium-enrichment suspension — a critical step in producing fuel both for nuclear power and nuclear bombs. They also have questioned promises in the proposal of foreign offers to build nuclear power plants inside Iran.

Iranian officials once again mixed defiance with conciliation in trying to head off new U.N. sanctions, but they also appeared to think recent difficulties in Iraq and Lebanon for the United States and its allies have only strengthened Tehran’s hand.

“We are not in an unfavorable position, since today everyone is aware of the ineffectiveness of the Security Council,” Ali Akbar Velayati, Ayatollah Khamenei’s top foreign policy adviser, said in a newspaper interview in Tehran.

Iranian officials offered no details of the response, but it appeared geared at enticing those countries into further negotiations by offering a broad set of proposals vague enough to hold out hope of progress in resolving the standoff.

If the Iranians leave the door open to halting enrichment as talks progress, that would drive a wedge in the Security Council between the Americans, British and French on one side and the Russians and Chinese on the other.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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