Tuesday, September 12, 2006

6 Powers Can't Agree on Iran Statement

George Jahn, Forbes:
Six world powers abandoned attempts Tuesday to issue a joint statement criticizing Iran's nuclear defiance after China and Russia refused to endorse U.S.-backed tough language, diplomats said.

The split, at a 35-nation meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency's board, reflected indecision on how to react to Tehran's weekend suggestion that it might temporarily suspend uranium enrichment - but only on its own terms.

The White House dismissed the suggestion on Tuesday, saying "there's been no change in the Iranian position." READ MORE

Russia and China have both signed off on U.N. sanctions as a way to punish Iran for its refusal to freeze uranium enrichment, which was first requested and then demanded by the U.N. Security Council. Russia and China are both permanent council members with veto power and part of the six-nation coalition trying to pressure Tehran to give up enrichment.

Both, however, have resisted U.S.-led efforts to move to sanctions quickly, despite the expiration of an Aug. 31 deadline for Iran to freeze work on developing the technology, which can be used to help make nuclear arms. Instead, they favor continued negotiations with Tehran.

Diplomats accredited to the IAEA, who demanded anonymity in exchange for sharing confidential information with The Associated Press, said Iran's readiness to consider a temporary enrichment freeze appears to have exacerbated differences over U.N. sanctions.

Iran's offer of a freeze for up to two months was unofficial and tentative, made during weekend talks between European Union top foreign policy official Javier Solana and senior Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani. It was revealed by officials from delegations familiar with the outcome of those talks.

Expanding on the Iranian overture Tuesday, those same officials told AP that Tehran was willing to freeze enrichment temporarily once it begins talks with the six powers that are meant to defuse the nuclear crisis. The six are formally demanding a stop to enrichment before such talks.

The Bush administration on Tuesday dismissed suggestions that Iran might suspend uranium enrichment for up to two months.

"To the best of my knowledge there has been no Iranian proposal," State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said. "There's been no change in the Iranian position."

Casey said the Bush administration was proceeding with discussions with other nations on pursuing sanctions against Iran in the U.N. Security Council.

He said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will take up the sanctions issue with other diplomats attending the special session of the U.N. General Assembly next week in New York.

Casey's comments came a day after Rice left the door open to pursuing a possible compromise with Iran, based on reports that Tehran had proposed a temporary enrichment suspension. But Rice said she had not had a chance to learn all the details of the Iranian suggestion.

The IAEA's chief U.S. delegate, Gregory L. Schulte, said America welcomed "the open channel" Solana had established, but emphasized that Iran had yet to make a formal offer on freezing enrichment.

"We would like very much to hear ... that Iran is suspending," Schulte told AP. "But in the meantime, the intention is to move forward with the (Security Council) sanctions package."

Still, the failure of the six powers to come up with a common Iran statement at the board meeting indicated that some preferred to wait on tough punishment until Iran offered more details about its suggestion.

The six-power talks are aimed at persuading Iran to agree to a long-term moratorium on enrichment. But Tehran has said it would not give up its right to the full range of nuclear technology and expertise, including enrichment, which it says it needs to develop to meet future nuclear power needs.

Tehran's readiness to consider even a temporary pause is significant because it could de-escalate the nuclear standoff if the six powers agree that Iran's terms on enrichment and other conditions are acceptable for a start to negotiations.

Iran's oil minister, Kazem Vaziri Hamaneh, told reporters at an OPEC conference in Vienna on Tuesday that progress in talks between Iran and the EU had eased the crisis.

"Many points are now clear," Hamaneh said. "I don't see a standoff" any longer.

The United States has led the drive to haul Iran before the Security Council to face economic or other sanctions if it does not roll back its nuclear program. Slow diplomatic work to do that began after Iran missed the Aug. 31 deadline.

The West, and the U.S. in particular, says that pause is essential to prevent Iran from gaining ground toward a weapon if that is its hidden aim. Iran voluntarily did suspend uranium activities during two years of negotiations with European nations, but those talks fell apart last year.

The latest offer, with the added inducement of face-to-face talks with Iran's old enemy the United States, would give trade, aid and political benefits to Iran if it scales back its program and answers the West's concerns. Iran would still be able to develop civilian nuclear power.

The diplomatic coalition against Iran has appeared ragged at times, but so far has held together. The issue may finally be at a turning point if the Security Council takes up sanctions, a step that not only Russia and China but some European allies of Washington are reluctant to take.