Thursday, March 30, 2006

Iran Defiantly Rejects New U.N. Demands

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned Iran on Thursday the "international community is united" in the dispute over its nuclear program, but a Tehran envoy defiantly rejected a U.N. call to reimpose a freeze on uranium enrichment.

Rice spoke after a meeting in Berlin among diplomats from the five veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany over ways to press Iran to stop enriching uranium, which can be used for weapons. Iran says its program is peaceful.

The meeting follows agreement Wednesday by the 15-member Security Council to ask the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, to report back in 30 days on Iran's compliance with demands to stop enriching uranium.

In Vienna, Iran's chief representative to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, told The Associated Press that "it is impossible to go back to suspension."

"This enrichment matter is not reversible," Soltanieh said. READ MORE

Rice said the Berlin meeting sends "a very strong signal to Iran that the international community is united."

She hinted at escalating Security Council action should Iran disregard the council's demand that it freeze enrichment, although remarks from Russian and Chinese representatives suggested strains in the alliance facing down Tehran.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the issue of sanctions was not discussed at the meeting and were not supported by Moscow.

"Russia on principle doesn't think sanctions can achieve a settlement, especially in the Middle East where there's so much going on," he said.

Lavrov's remarks were echoed by China's Vice Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo, who called for a "peaceful solution" and added there was "too much turmoil" in the region.

"This issue is among the most difficult and complicated in today's world, it requires time, persistence and wisdom, and it can only be resolved through peaceful means," Dai said, adding his country would "work together with the other sides."

The United States and Britain used tougher rhetoric.

British Foreign Minister Jack Straw said Iran had "miscalculated."

"The onus is on Iran to show the international community that its program is entirely for civil purposes and for no other," Straw said. "We have shown very great patience with Iran. They in turn have miscalculated.

"They thought the international community would be divided on this issue but in fact they have become more and more united," he added.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that his country and the five permanent members remained intent on a "diplomatic solution" to the dispute.

He held out hope Tehran might reconsider, telling reporters: "We hope that the declaration by the Iranian ambassador is not the last word offered on this."

Steinmeier said the 30-day window agreed on by the Security Council declaration gives Iran time to "make a choice between isolation ... or a return to the negotiating table.

"We all very much hope that Iran will seize the offer to resume negotiations and we use this opportunity to once again call on Iran to suspend all enrichment activities and to open up once again the path leading to negotiations," he said.

Wednesday's statement from the Security Council took into account the Russian and Chinese reservations about too much toughness, while meeting U.S., French and British calls for keeping the pressure on Tehran.

The modest statement did not go as far as the United States had wanted. It is not legally binding and carries no explicit penalties for Iran if it does not comply, but Rice said it is an important first step. The Security Council could eventually impose economic sanctions, though Russia and China say they oppose such tough measures.

The statement also calls on Iran to ratify the IAEA's additional protocol, which allows unannounced inspections.

The Security Council could eventually impose economic sanctions, though Russia and China say they oppose such tough measures.

The Europeans initially proposed a much stronger statement but accepted a milder one to secure the support of Russia and China. Western countries agreed to drop language that proliferation "constitutes a threat to international peace and security." Also gone is a mention that the council is specifically charged under the U.N. charter with addressing such threats.

Russia and China had opposed that language because they wanted nothing in the statement that could automatically trigger council action after 30 days.

The West has refused to rule out sanctions, and U.S. officials have said the threat of military action must also remain on the table.

In Geneva, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki condemned "unjustified propaganda" about its program.

"Iran's nuclear program is peaceful and has never diverted towards prohibited activities," Mottaki told the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament.

But, he added, Iran is willing to continue talks with the IAEA.

"We are willing to continue with negotiations and also continue with our sincere and constructive cooperation with the agency," Mottaki told reporters. "Our cooperation with the agency will continue."

Negotiations between Iran and France, Germany and Britain collapsed in August after Tehran rejected a package of incentives offered in return for a permanent end to uranium enrichment. Its moves to develop full- blown enrichment capabilities led the IAEA's board to ask for Security Council involvement.