Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Russia, China back Iran's calls for negotiations to end nuclear standoff

Ali Akbar Dareini, Canadian Press:
Iran urged Europe on Wednesday to pay attention to what it called "positive" signals in its counterproposal to a nuclear incentives package aimed at persuading Tehran to roll back its nuclear program. Russia and China backed Iran's call for negotiations to end the standoff. READ MORE

But the United States and France said Tehran's offer falls short, setting the stage for a possible fight at the UN if the West pushes for sanctions.

Diplomats were studying the details of Iran's offer a day after Tehran presented it Tuesday without any detailed public comment. Iran's proposal offers negotiations on its nuclear program but apparently resists suspending uranium enrichment - the key Security Council demand to avoid sanctions.

A statement by the U.S. State Department acknowledged that Iran considered its proposal to be a serious one and "we will review it." But it went on to say that Iran's response "falls short of the conditions set by the Security Council."

Nevertheless, the Iranians sought Wednesday to portray their detailed counter-offer as a major initiative that could lead to resolution of the year-long dispute without having to resort to a bruising fight over sanctions.

It appeared the counter-offer was designed to entice European countries, China and Russia into further negotiations without accepting a suspension of uranium enrichment - a key step in making nuclear weapons - as a precondition for talks.

That could drive a wedge among the five veto-wielding powers on the Security Council, with the Americans, British and French on one side and the Russians and Chinese on the other. Last month, Russia said the Security Council was in no rush to pressure Iran, striking a more conciliatory tone than the United States.

"If the Europeans pay proper attention to positive and clear signals included in Iran's response, the case will be solved through negotiation and without tension," state-controlled radio quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi as saying Wednesday.

Asefi described Iran's proposal as a sign of his country's good will to resolve the standoff.

The dispute over Tehran's nuclear program revolves around Iran's insistence that it wants to master the technology simply to generate electricity. But critics say Iran is interested in enrichment because it wants to make nuclear weapons.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said "the door is still open" for negotiations but only if Iran suspends uranium enrichment first. German Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Jaeger said the demand to halt enrichment indicated "that Iran clearly has lost the confidence of the international community that its nuclear program is civilian."

But Moscow and Beijing appeared receptive toward further talks. Russia's Foreign Ministry said it would continue to seek a negotiated solution, and China appealed for dialogue, urging "constructive measures" by Iran and patience from the United States and its allies.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said talk of sanctions was "premature" before the Aug. 31 deadline set by the Security Council for Iran to halt uranium enrichment or face the risk of economic and political sanctions.

"The Russian side has started studying the Iranian reply along with its partners in the sextet," Kamynin said in a statement, referring to the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany.

"Russia will continue with its course of searching for a political solution . . . and will continue to seek to preserve the role of the International Atomic Energy Agency and prevent the erosion of the non-proliferation regime."

Iran delivered the written proposal in response to a package of incentives offered in June by the five permanent Security Council members and Germany to persuade Iran to halt enrichment - and the threat of punishments if it does not.

The Western incentives package has not been made public but some details have leaked. They include an offer to lift a ban on sales of Boeing passenger aircraft as well as providing Iran with some nuclear technology to build reactors for peaceful purposes.