- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 29, 2006

1:15 p.m.

MOSCOW — The United States, Russia and other industrial democracies said today they expect Iran to reply next week to an international offer to bargain over Tehran’s disputed nuclear program.

“We are disappointed in the absence of an official Iranian response to this positive proposal,” said a statement from foreign ministers of the Group of Eight industrial nations. “We expect to hear a clear and substantive Iranian response to these proposals” at a meeting scheduled July 5 between the European Union’s foreign minister and Iran’s nuclear negotiator.

Iran has told the European Union it will reply at that session, a U.S. official said, but it is not clear whether Iran will give a definitive “yes” or “no.” Tehran could ask for changes or for preliminary talks before any negotiations about the proposal could begin.

The clerical regime has sent conflicting signals so far about whether it will accept the package of economic incentives and other rewards in exchange for shelving disputed nuclear activities that the West fears could lead to a bomb. In a major policy shift, the Bush administration has offered to join the talks, which would be the first direct, high-level contact between the United States and Iran in more than a quarter-century.

The statement said the international coalition that made the offer to Iran “will assess the situation before mid-July.” The U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that refers to a hastily scheduled meeting among Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her counterparts from Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China on July 12 in Paris.

That meeting will immediately precede a separate gathering of President Bush and other leaders of the Group of Eight industrial nations on July 15 through 17 in Russia, where the Iranian situation is expected to be a major topic.

The G-8 diplomats also discussed a range of pressing issues. They condemned the abduction of an Israeli soldier in the Gaza Strip and asked the Palestinian government to “take immediate measures” to free him. The group also asked Israel “to exercise utmost restraint in the current crisis. The detention of elected members of the Palestinian government and legislature raises particular concern.”

Israeli troops arrested dozens of ministers and lawmakers from the Palestinians’ elected Hamas leadership today.

The United States has not issued its own separate response, but Miss Rice signed on to the joint statement, which contains coded criticism of Israel.

At a news conference following lengthy meetings with the diplomats from Russia, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, Italy, France, Canada and Japan, Miss Rice noted the call for restraint from Israel.

“With restraint, perhaps, we can get back to a place where there are hopes again for a peace process,” Miss Rice said.

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