Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Bush administration yesterday postponed its pursuit of U.N. sanctions against Iran for “a few weeks” to allow its European allies time to try to negotiate a suspension of Iran’s nuclear fuel production.

Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a telephone conversation before meeting with Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani in Berlin that Mr. Larijani “seems to be sincere” in trying to find a compromise, U.S. officials said.

The five-hour talks between the EU representative and the Iranian negotiator were described as intensive. The two men planned to meet again today, Solana spokeswoman Cristina Gallach said.

The United States has said it would join the Europeans in direct negotiations with Iran on incentives only if it stopped enriching uranium. Uranium can be used to produce atomic bombs or to fuel nuclear power plants.

Officials said that Mr. Solana suggested a little more time to negotiate a suspension of Iran’s uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities might pay off, and that Miss Rice agreed.

“Our response was, ‘Absolutely, if it’s a matter of a few days, a few weeks here to see if there is a possibility of keeping open a negotiated diplomatic solution,’ ” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters. “We want to give that every opportunity to succeed.”

The administration had given Tehran an Aug. 31 deadline and threatened to push for sanctions. China and Russia have been firm in refusing to join in any punitive move.

On Tuesday, The Washington Times reported that Iran was close to reaching a compromise with the Europeans but was seeking a way to keep any enrichment suspension secret. Tehran denied it was considering such a deal.

Mr. McCormack said yesterday that the Iranians’ “disposition to this point has not been to give clear answers,” but he expressed hope that their behavior might be changing.

“There may be an opportunity here, there may be a little opening if we just give the Iranians a little time and space,” he said. “Perhaps they will come through with a positive answer.”

He declined to answer directly the question about a secret deal, saying that, if the United States showed up for negotiations with Iran, everyone would know that enrichment suspension — Washington’s only condition for participation — had taken place.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suggested during a seminar in Tehran that the West has proposed a quiet understanding that would help both sides save face.

“In negotiations, they tell us to suspend uranium enrichment for one day on the pretext of some technical problem and let us continue negotiations with you,” Mr. Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying by the official Islamic Republic News Agency. “The Iranian nation will not give up its right.”

The Iranian Students News Agency reported the president as saying: “They say, ‘You should suspend uranium enrichment on the surface, helping us to say that Iran accepted suspension,’ but I have to say we are men of negotiation but we do not demand negotiation.”

Miss Rice warned that, despite her willingness to wait a few more weeks, “clearly this won’t go on very much longer.”

“Obviously, if we can come out of this with an Iranian decision to suspend its enrichment and reprocessing activity completely and verifiably, then we would be on a course of negotiations — that’s the course we would all like to pursue,” she said.

One of the issues that Mr. Solana and Mr. Larijani discussed was how long any suspension would last, diplomats said.

The Iranian official, they added, is constrained by conflicting views in his government between those who do not want confrontation with the West and those for whom uranium enrichment is a source of pride.

“I have the expectation that the talks today will be successful,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters in Berlin. “I think that today we will not get any final news, but hopefully in the course of tomorrow.”

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