Hopes dim for easing of standoff with Iran

Posted in Iran | 05-Jul-06 | Author: Katrin Bennhold| Source: International Herald Tribune

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.
BRUSSELS On the eve of negotiations here between European and Iranian diplomats, Russia and other major powers urged Tehran on Tuesday to respond swiftly to an international package of incentives and end the standoff over its nuclear program.

But hours later, Iran asserted that it would not be rushed. The latest exchange dimmed hopes for a breakthrough ahead of a Group of 8 summit meeting in St. Petersburg at the end of next week, where all the Western negotiating parties and Russia will gather.

Efforts to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear program culminated last month in a wide-ranging package of economic and political rewards - including the prospect of re-establishing direct relations with the United States.

The package has been backed by all five members of the UN Security Council and Germany. Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States have suspended their work on a United Nations resolution charting further action on Iran, including possible sanctions, pending Tehran's response to the offer.

Iran's nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, was to meet the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, on Wednesday in Brussels, in what will be the first encounter since the package was submitted to Tehran on June 6.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who will be the host of the G-8 talks from July 15 to 17, pressed Tehran on Tuesday to respond favorably. "We would really like our Iranian partners to accept the proposals," he said, adding that he would like talks to resume before the summit meeting. He acknowledged, however, that that was unlikely.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, struck a less conciliatory tone, indicating that Tehran needed to respond by next week: "We need an answer soon, fast," he said on a visit to Slovenia. "We have signaled this to Iran repeatedly over the past days."

Officials in Britain and China did not set a deadline, but demanded that the response be swift. Blair requested an answer "as soon as possible." A spokeswoman at the Chinese Foreign Ministry told The Associated Press that Beijing hoped Tehran would "respond to the package at an early date."

"The Iranian issue is at an important stage and the urgent task is to help resume the talks as soon as possible," the spokeswoman added.

But the Iranian foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, said Tuesday that Tehran needed time to review the proposal before it could issue a formal response. It has said it would reply to the offer by mid-August. "The date announced by the Islamic Republic of Iran for responding to the proposed package is unchangeable," Mottaki said, according to the official IRNA press agency.

Following a series of positive reactions from senior Iranian officials in early June, recent remarks have been noticeably cooler. According to Iranian press reports, Larijani on Monday rejected one key condition for resuming official negotiations: that Tehran suspend its uranium enrichment activities.

Among other things, the offer promises Iran a state-of-the-art nuclear reactor with a guaranteed fuel supply, trade incentives and support for the idea of a regional security framework.

European diplomats on Tuesday expressed doubts about the prospect of Iran giving a clear answer on Wednesday. But they also admitted that Russia and China were not ready to resume work on a Security Council resolution that involved sanctions as long as Iran appeared to be reviewing the package.

Solana's spokeswoman said the meeting was the first opportunity to get official feedback from the Iranians on the offer. Larijani has spoken of "ambiguities" in the package before. "The objective of the talks tomorrow is to create the conditions to restart negotiations," said Cristina Gallach, the spokeswoman.