Upbeat Iran finds 'positive steps' in offer

Posted in Iran | 07-Jun-06 | Author: David R. Sands| Source: Washington Times

Ali Larijani, Iran's top nuclear negotiator.

Iran's top negotiator yesterday gave a cautiously upbeat review of a package offered by the United States and five world powers designed to halt Tehran's uranium enrichment program, a package that could allow Iran access to some sensitive U.S. nuclear technology.

In marked contrast to recent defiant comments from Iranian leaders, nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani told a delegation to Tehran headed by European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana that the offer "had some positive steps," but added there were still "some ambiguities, which should be removed."

U.S. officials have refused to discuss the incentives being offered Tehran for its cooperation, but diplomats in Europe told the Associated Press they include a new concession by the United States that it would share technology for civilian nuclear programs with Iran if Tehran agrees to stop enriching uranium, a critical step in developing a nuclear bomb.

The Bush administration has led the drive to suspend Iran's enrichment programs, saying they are a cover for a vast nuclear weapons program. Iran claims its extensive research programs are for peaceful uses only.

Iran also would be offered a light-water nuclear reactor and a guaranteed source of fuel for civilian nuclear power if it accepts the international offer. The United States agreed to a similar package in the mid-1990s to North Korea, only to discover years later that Pyongyang had secretly pursued a nuclear bomb program anyway.

President Bush told reporters that Tehran's restrained first reaction to the details of the offer was "positive," but U.S. officials declined to comment on the substance of their offer, saying the diplomacy had reached a particularly sensitive stage.

"We want to give the Iranian government some time to consider what is in this package," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

Mr. McCormack declined to comment on whether the United States has offered to share at least some forms of nuclear technology with Iran.

"I've seen a lot of reports flying around the past couple of days about what may or may not be in this package," he said, cautioning that such reports should be taken "with a grain of salt."

Mr. Solana briefed both Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on the Tehran discussions. Mr. Steinmeier said afterward he expected an Iranian answer on the offer by the end of June, when foreign ministers of the Group of Eight nations meet ahead of next month's summit in St. Petersburg.

The package also includes trade and other incentives if Iran cooperates. The United States for the first time has agreed to participate in the multilateral talks, but only if Iran halts all uranium enrichment programs.

Wayne White, a lead Middle East analyst for the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research from 2002 to 2005, said Iran's leaders may still be trying to decide whether Washington is genuinely seeking a deal or just laying the diplomatic groundwork for tougher action.

"There was a hot debate in the United States and Europe over whether this was an offer designed to self-destruct," said Mr. White, now an adjunct scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute. "I expect the same debate is going on in Iran."

Najmeh Bozorgmehr, an Iranian scholar at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said Iran was never likely to reject the package outright because it had been endorsed by both Russia and China.

"If this deal does not work out, Iran may need Russian and Chinese help against even tougher measures," she said.

But Ilan Berman, vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council, said Mr. Larijani's comments about "ambiguities" could be preparing the ground for what U.S. opponents of the Iranian offer say will be endless talks while Iran preserves its nuclear programs.

"That should be setting off alarm bells all over the place," Mr. Berman said.