Western Powers Disagree on Elements of Iran Proposal
Steven R. Weisman, The New York Times:
The United States and Europe are divided over the latest phase of their negotiating strategy on Iran, with the Bush administration resisting a new European offer that includes a proposal for a Middle East security "framework" for Iran if it gives up its nuclear activities, diplomats from each side said Friday.
The diplomats said the administration was also resisting the idea of protecting European companies from punishment by the United States for violating its sanctions if they did business with Iran, as called for in the European proposal. READ MORE
The disagreements on these issues are clouding the possibility of a deal with Iran on its nuclear program, even as tensions have increased over Tehran's refusal to change its behavior, the diplomats said. In addition, they said, Europe, the United States and Russia have not agreed on the need to impose sanctions on Iran if it continues to defy the West.
The diplomats and other officials requested anonymity because, following diplomatic protocol, they are not authorized to speak publicly about ongoing negotiations.
The European proposals for how to deal with Iran were transmitted to the United States only on Thursday, American and European officials said. A senior administration official said the proposals were being studied by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and others.
"The U.S. has received a European proposal but has not yet responded to it," said the official, adding that the American answer would be conveyed next Wednesday at a meeting of senior envoys in London. Also to be discussed are sanctions if Iran continues activities believed in the West to be part of a weapons program.
"What we have is a general agreement among the Europeans, Russians, Chinese and ourselves to make the Iranians choose between a positive path and a negative path," the official said, adding that both incentives and possible sanctions would be discussed in London.
The United States, Europe, Russia and China are trying to negotiate an approach on Iran, a challenge made even more difficult by persistent rebuffs from Iranian leaders. This week President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was reported to have described what the West was preparing as akin to nuts and candy in exchange for gold.
The envoys were supposed to have met Friday to discuss the European ideas, but disagreements on the details were said to have postponed the session until next week. Some European officials say talks may continue into the summer.
Hard-liners in the Bush administration and other countries, particularly Israel, are worried that time is wasting and that Iran is about to reach a "point of no return," when it will have the technology and expertise to produce weapons on its own, even though that may take years. In the proposed European package for Iran, there is still no agreement with Russia on sanctions. Russia has said it will not endorse a United Nations Security Council resolution that would make Iran's compliance mandatory.
According to several European officials, Russia's refusal was the focus of a testy exchange between Ms. Rice and the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, when they met for dinner with other envoys on May 8 in New York. Previous accounts have described the heated nature of their exchange, but new details emerged Friday.
According to two officials, Mr. Lavrov said statements about Iran by R. Nicholas Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs, were "pathetic," prompting Ms. Rice to come back and say such talk was unacceptable. Later, Ms. Rice was said to have asked Mr. Lavrov whether his comments meant an end to talks on the matter.
Mr. Lavrov was said to have replied no, and European diplomats now say Russia may eventually support a threat of sanctions — provided they are not imposed automatically if Iran defies the Security Council's demand for cooperation.
European officials say there is a consensus among them that Mr. Lavrov was angry because of an earlier speech by Vice President Dick Cheney denouncing Russia for its increasingly authoritarian and bullying behavior. Several wondered whether Mr. Cheney, worried about the direction the Europeans were taking the talks, was not in fact trying to antagonize Russia to discourage it from cooperating on Iran.
American officials say that it is no secret that Mr. Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld are deeply distrustful of the European effort. Instead, they support efforts to topple the Iranian regime from within, though not through military action.
Similarly, administration hardliners do not like any kind of security guarantees for Iran, including talk of a Middle East "regional" framework put forward by the Europeans. While details are sketchy, the Europeans said the plan would include some sort of guarantee that the government would not be overthrown, through either outside attack or subversion. Europeans say Ms. Rice has made it clear that she is more sympathetic to the idea.
The Europeans are also persisting in the view that there will eventually have to be talks between the United States and Iran on security matters. But both they and American officials say there is no call for such negotiations in the current proposal. Administration officials say that if such a proposal were in the European package, it would be rejected outright by the United States.
The only contact likely with Iran would be through the United States ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, who is authorized to talk to Iranians about only the situation in Iraq. Mr. Khalilzad said in an interview Friday that he had not been in touch with Tehran and that he is not authorized to make contact until after an Iraqi government is formed.
"Since I've served as ambassador, I have not met secretly or openly with any Iranian official," said Mr. Khalilzad, who took office in April 2005. He was responding to speculation that had appeared in some news reports. "We would be prepared to meet with them once the government of national unity is formed."