Monday, September 11, 2006

Rice Hints at Talks if Iran Halts Nuclear Work

Arshad Mohammed, Reuters:
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Monday the United States might be willing to join negotiations with Iran if it temporarily suspended its nuclear program. "The point is there would have to be a suspension. If there is a suspension, we can have discussions but there has to be a suspension," Rice told reporters as she flew to Canada.

"As far as I know, the Iranians have not yet said that they would suspend prior to negotiations, which is what the issue has been," she added.

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Iranian negotiator Ali Larijani said they had made progress in weekend talks to explore a basis for formal negotiations to end a stalemate over Tehran's pursuit of technology that could yield atom bombs.

An EU diplomat said Larijani offered a two-month enrichment freeze during seven hours of discussions with Solana in Vienna that both sides described as constructive.

Asked about the offer of a two-month freeze, Rice appeared to leave open the door to talks.

"Suspension, verified suspension, that's the condition," she said. "As to time limitations ... I haven't heard any Iranian offer so I don't know what to make of that but the question is: are they prepared to suspend, verifiably, so that negotiations can begin. That's the issue," she said. READ MORE

Rice's comments appeared to mark a softening of the U.S. position. Previously, the United States said it still aimed to seek U.N. sanctions against Iran because of its refusal to end its uranium enrichment program.

Earlier on Monday, Gregory Schulte, U.S. envoy to the IAEA, told said Washington was pleased by the result of the Solana-Larijani meetings, but still felt a need to deter Iran from stringing out any talks while perfecting enrichment technology on the ground.

"It is encouraging that progress was made in these discussions. We hope progress will continue. (But) we envision us moving forward with the sanctions resolution unless Iran suspends the activities of concern," Schulte said.

The United States, along with Germany, France, Britain, Russia and China, have made a suspension of enrichment a condition of beginning negotiations on their incentives package.

EU diplomats say that Russia, China, France and possibly Germany would be willing to compromise and accept a freeze that began once talks were under way.

The West believes Iran is secretly trying to build nuclear bombs and has condemned its defiance of an August 31 Security Council deadline to stop enriching uranium. Iran says it only wants to produce low-grade enriched fuel for power plants.


The 35-nation governing board of the U.N. nuclear watchdog met Monday to debate a report by International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei saying Iran was pressing ahead with enrichment in defiance of the U.N. Security Council.

Solana and Larijani said they hoped to hold another round of talks, possibly Thursday.

In a briefing paper issued before the weekend talks with Larijani, Britain, France and Germany said Tehran was stalling.

"The Iranian goal obviously is to split the international community and draw us into a process of talks about talks on Iranian terms, while making no commitments of its own while continuing with its enrichment program," it said.

The document said Iran's written August 22 reply to the incentives package was "verbose, complicated and ambiguous in many places."

An IAEA diplomat said ElBaradei had been quietly urging Iran and the six powers to be flexible, including on the pivotal issue of "the timing and duration of an enrichment suspension."

The diplomat said Iran would also need assurances of its right to a civilian nuclear energy program under IAEA observation as well as security guarantees.

ElBaradei told reporters before entering the closed IAEA board session that he hoped full negotiations could start soon but that international patience was running out for a deal.

Diplomats close to the IAEA say ElBaradei is concerned that Iran could cripple its inspections if slapped with sanctions.

"It is counterproductive for Iran to link its cooperation with the agency to its ongoing dialogue with its European and other partners," ElBaradei told the IAEA board meeting.

(Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau in Berlin and Emma Thomasson in Vienna)