Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Bush administration said yesterday that Iran’s proposal for talks on its nuclear programs “falls short of the conditions” demanded by the U.N. Security Council.

But with the international alliance against Iran showing signs of strain, the administration stopped short of dismissing Tehran’s proposal out of hand.

“We acknowledge that Iran considers its response as a serious offer, and we will review it,” State Department acting spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said after a meeting between President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Both China and Russia said they favor additional negotiations with Tehran to clear up questions over its nuclear programs, which the United States and its European allies fear are a cover for Tehran’s drive to obtain nuclear weapons.

Mr. Gallegos said that Iran’s 20-page counteroffer “falls short of the conditions set by the Security Council, which require the full and verifiable suspension of all [uranium] enrichment-related and reprocessing activities.”

“We are consulting closely, including with other members of the Security Council, on next steps,” he said.

Separately, a bipartisan congressional report released yesterday said Iran has become an even greater threat to the United States with the election last year of hard-line Islamist President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence said Iran has enough uranium, if sufficiently enriched, for 12 nuclear bombs.

The report also cast doubt on Moscow’s ability to monitor spent fuel rods from a Russian-built nuclear reactor in Bushehr, Iran, and warned Iran could in time produce 30 plutonium-based nuclear bombs annually by reprocessing the plant’s spent fuel rods.

The five permanent U.N. Security Council powers — the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain — and Germany in June offered Tehran a package of diplomatic, trade and security concessions if Iran would freeze its nuclear programs.

Top U.S. officials say they are prepared to move “quickly” with sanctions and other punitive measures if Iran refuses to cooperate.

France and Germany yesterday echoed the U.S. stance, saying Iran must freeze its enrichment work — a critical step in producing fuel for both civilian and military nuclear uses — before any talks can proceed. The U.N. deadline for Iran to comply with the freeze is Aug. 31.

“The Iranians know the rules of the game — first a suspension of sensitive nuclear activities,” said French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy.

But official spokesmen in Moscow and Beijing said Iran’s lengthy counterproposal for new “serious talks,” delivered on Tuesday in Tehran by senior nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, could form the basis for a new round of negotiations and put on hold for now any talk of sanctions.

“It is very important to understand the nuances and grasp constructive elements, if in fact they exist, and work out how to work further with Tehran on the basis of the known proposals of the six countries,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin told the Interfax news agency.

Iranian officials appeared eager to exploit possible divisions on the other side of the negotiating table.

“If the Europeans pay proper attention to positive and clear signals included in Iran’s response, the case will be solved through negotiation and without tension,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi told Iran’s state radio yesterday.

Mr. Bush also spoke by phone with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan about Iran yesterday. Mr. Annan plans a Middle East trip, starting tomorrow, that will include a stop in Tehran.

Iran says its nuclear programs are for civilian energy uses, and claims it has a right to pursue nuclear power under the international treaty on nonproliferation.

c Rowan Scarborough contributed to this report.

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