Wednesday, December 21, 2005

EU-Iran atomic talks to go on

Mark Heinrich, Reuters:
European powers on Wednesday reopened talks with Iran over concerns that it is secretly trying to make atomic bombs and said the dialogue would resume in January, halting a spiral into confrontation.

But France said the exploratory talks had been "open and frank", diplomatic language for sharp disagreement, suggesting Iran had stuck to its resolve to enrich uranium. The EU, backed by Washington, is demanding that Iran accept incentives to give up enrichment, which can yield material for nuclear weapons.

Tension had been brewing amid Iranian declarations that the Holocaust is a myth and Israel should be wiped out, and an EU accusation that Iran has systematically violated human rights.

Diplomats said the five hours of talks between the Islamic republic and the "EU3" -- France, Britain and Germany -- were held in a civil atmosphere. Both sides confirmed that a second round of exploratory discussions had been set for January. READ MORE

French delegation chief Stanislav Laboulaye said governments would be consulted "with the aim of agreeing a framework" for reviving negotiations. "Both sides set out their positions in an open and frank manner," he added.

Iranian negotiator Mohammed Mehdi Akhonzadeh said the tone of the discussions had been "good".

Tehran says its nuclear work is designed only to fuel more power plants for an energy-hungry economy. But it dodged U.N. nuclear inspections for 18 years until 2003 -- and the West says its cooperation since then has not restored confidence.

The United States and the EU have expressed concern above all about Iran's efforts to develop centrifuge machines capable of purifying uranium to a grade suitable for atomic bombs.


"It was clear (at the meeting) that there's still a large gap to bridge ... This process should be geared toward ensuring Iran's programme can only be used for peaceful purposes," said an EU3 diplomat close to the talks.

"(That means Iran) not taking any further unilateral steps including the manufacture of centrifuge components and research and development on centrifuges," he told Reuters.

"We want a diplomatic solution, to examine things further before we close the window of opportunity," said another EU3 official. "But we made absolutely clear to Iran that any moves toward enrichment would risk aggravating the situation."

Despite Wednesday's deal, the United States accused Iran of avoiding serious negotiations because it had not grasped that "the rest of the world" felt it would be dangerous for Tehran to acquire a nuclear weapon or purify uranium on its soil.

Some analysts believe that if dialogue collapses again, the way will be clear for an emergency session of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions.

But Russia and China, both with significant stakes in energy and arms trade with Iran, could veto sanctions as permanent powers on the Security Council. Moscow has said there is no evidence Iran is bent on assembling nuclear arms.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki gave the West little hope of a compromise in comments in Tehran.

He said Iran aimed to set a timetable for restarting enrichment, which it mothballed under a 2003 deal with the EU.

And he said Iran would not again suspend uranium ore processing at its Isfahan plant -- whose resumption in August led to the breakdown of the two-year-old EU-Iran talks -- and intended to restart preliminary work on enrichment technology.

"Isfahan is a done deal," he said. "The research and building parts for (enrichment) centrifuges is not the same as enriching uranium. When the time comes, we will announce the resumption of these activities," he added.

(Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi and Paul Hughes in Tehran, Madeline Chambers in London, Louis Charbonneau in Berlin and Saul Hudson in Washington)