Tuesday, May 16, 2006

China Supports Europe's Incentives Plan for Iran

Dan Bilefsky and John O'Neil, The New York Times:
China said today that it supported European efforts to create a new package of incentives for Iran as a way of resolving the standoff over its nuclear program, while Russia repeated its adamant opposition to any United Nations Security Council resolution that could be "a pretext for the use of force."

International efforts to convince Iran to pull back from its nuclear program have stalled, with the United States calling for aggressive action and China and Russia refusing to consider sanctions.

The European Union's proposal, outlined on Monday, would give Iran technology to build nuclear power plants for civilian energy production and other incentives, while requiring that Tehran halt its nuclear enrichment research and clear up questions about past nuclear treaty violations that international inspectors consider unresolved.

After two days of meetings between Chinese and Russian officials in Beijing, Liu Jinchao, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, told reporters today that "China approves of the Europeans' important stance of striving to solve the Iran nuclear issue through peaceful negotiation."

Mr. Liu called on Iran to react positively to the European plan, Reuters reported. He also expressed a hope that the European Union would "improve" its plan to "take into account the reasonable concerns of Iran," the news agency reported.

Speaking in Beijing, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, called on Iran to clear up remaining doubts about its nuclear program, saying that Moscow is "worried that Iran has not answered questions posed by the International Atomic Energy Agency," according to Russia's state-run news agency.

The atomic agency's director, Dr. Mohamed El-Baradei, has said that inspectors have found no evidence of a weapons program, but have not been given enough information to dispel suspicions of a hidden program. Iran admitted in 2003 that it had been in violation of its nuclear treaty obligation for more than a decade.

Mr. Lavrov said that Russia and China remain firmly opposed to the use of force. "Neither Russia nor China will support a resolution of the U.N. Security Council that could be used as a pretext for the use of force," he said.

American officials, who believe that Iran is determined to acquire nuclear weapons, have refused to rule out military action to stop it, and have asked the Security Council to adopt a mandatory, or so-called Chapter 7, resolution to demand that Iran halt its nuclear research.

In unveiling the European proposal on Monday, Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, said Iran would first have to gain international confidence by ceasing any nuclear enrichment, which Iran defends as part of its nuclear energy program but which the United States and the European Union view as camouflage for a nuclear weapons program.

Speaking after a meeting of European foreign ministers in Brussels, Mr. Solana said the European Union was willing to offer Iran "the most sophisticated technology" provided that it would be used for generating energy and not building nuclear weapons.

"We want to prove to the Iranians clearly and loudly that we have nothing against Iran using nuclear power for peaceful means," Mr. Solana said. "But we do not have proof that this is the case, and Iranian demands to be able to conduct enrichment for research purposes is something we can't accept."

He did not explain how technology could be offered that would allow Iran to produce nuclear power without also enabling it to create weapons-grade nuclear materials. Nor did he explain how such technology could be provided without approval from the United States, which insists that Iran halt all nuclear activities.

Iran reacted coolly to the proposals, saying it would reject any European initiative that demanded that Iran halt uranium enrichment. Meeting with the ambassadors of Britain, France and Germany in Tehran, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said in a statement that "any demand for a suspension or pause" of uranium enrichment "is an illogical and unacceptable demand and undoubtedly will be rejected."

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Sunday pre-emptively dismissed any new European offer, asserting that only Iran had the authority to make decisions about its nuclear program. "They want to offer us things they call incentives in return for renouncing our rights," he said.

European officials said privately that they were seeking to structure the offer in such a way that Iran would be forced to reveal the true intentions behind its nuclear program. "We want to tease out an offer that will once and for all force Iran to say whether it wants to use nuclear activities for energy or for nuclear weapons and to stop it from playing games," said one official, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of derailing negotiations.

European officials said they had discussed an incentives package for Iran that included proposals to speed talks on its potential admission to the World Trade Organization and on expanding university ties between Iran and Europe. However, they emphasized that Europe would not offer Iran security guarantees against potential threats by its neighbors. READ MORE

They said a breakthrough was unlikely unless the European Union could garner international support for its package. A final proposal is expected by the end of the month, but European officials said it was unlikely before a meeting on Friday in London of nonproliferation officials from the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

Mr. Solana said the new European package would build on a package of economic incentives offered to Iran last August, when the Europeans told Iran that it could cement its role in international affairs if it ended its nuclear activities.

However, a senior State Department official said last week that the package was unlikely to significantly improve upon Europe's previous incentives, which included the restoration of economic and technical assistance for Iran's development and promises to accelerate discussions over its potential World Trade Organization membership.

Separately, the European Union said Monday that it was proceeding with plans to get financial aid to the Palestinians without such aid passing through the hands of the Hamas government.

Europe and the United States froze hundreds of millions of dollars in direct aid to the Palestinian government after the Islamic militant group Hamas won legislative elections in January.

The United States and the European Union view Hamas as a terrorist organization and have called for the group to renounce violence and recognize Israel.