By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 13, 2005
Confronted with significant international pressure, Iran signaled yesterday that it was prepared to give negotiations a try before making a final decision about resuming its nuclear program and responded positively to a European offer of a meeting aimed at reducing tensions, U.S., European and Iranian diplomats said.
But the crisis over Iran's nuclear efforts was at a sensitive stage, and diplomats on both sides of the Atlantic said they were uncertain whether there was enough common ground for a meeting to take place between Iranian and European officials.
U.S. and European diplomats, who discussed the issue on the condition of anonymity, described clear red lines, saying the only way out of the escalation would be a retreat by Iran from plans to quickly restart a uranium-conversion facility at Isfahan.
If that does not happen, Prime Minister Tony Blair said yesterday, Britain will support U.S. efforts to involve the United Nations in the dispute.
"Let's wait and see what actually happens. But we certainly will support referral to the U.N. Security Council if Iran breaches its undertakings and obligations," he said.
Blair spoke at a news conference a day after the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany warned Iran in a letter that resumption of nuclear work would bring two years of negotiations among the parties to an end. "The consequences could only be negative for Iran," they wrote.
The contents of the letter reflected a tougher strategy by the Europeans, who are moving closer to the Bush administration's position.
Yesterday, U.S. officials said they welcomed the letter, while avoiding language that could inflame tensions.
"The Security Council always remains an option should the Iranians not live up to their obligations, but we are still hopeful that they will recognize where they are," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in congressional testimony yesterday.
Away from cameras, U.S. officials began mapping scenarios for a possible emergency session of the International Atomic Energy Agency next week. A U.S. official involved in the policymaking, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the administration wants to have a strategy in place when British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw arrives in Washington for talks Tuesday.
Blair said that details still need to be worked out among allies but that diplomacy is the goal. "Nobody is talking about invasions of Iran or military action against Iran," he said.
The IAEA meeting will take place if Iran officially informs the agency that it plans to restart a uranium-conversion facility in the town of Isfahan.
U.S. and European officials said they would then use the occasion to issue Iran an ultimatum to reverse course or find the matter in the hands of the Security Council, which has the authority to impose economic sanctions or threaten Iran with force if the program is seen as a danger.
The diplomatic crisis over Iran's nuclear program deepened after a difficult round of negotiations last month in London between Iranians and negotiators from France, Britain and Germany.
The negotiations are aimed at resolving suspicions about the nuclear program that Iran developed in secret over 18 years. Iran says it intended the program for nuclear energy, not weapons. IAEA inspectors have not found proof Iran is using the program as a cover for bombmaking, but the Bush administration has not been convinced.
Iran has said from the beginning that it plans to keep its program intact; the Europeans are hoping to persuade Iran to give up the sensitive aspects of the program that could be diverted for weapons work.
European officials have said that is why they rejected an offer by Iran last month to continue operating the sensitive equipment. Iranian officials responded to the rejection by suggesting that negotiations were coming to an end.
Iranian officials, however, chose more subtle language in public yesterday.
"No certain day is fixed for resumption. It is possible to postpone it some days," Gholamreza Aghazadeh, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, told state-run TV, according to the Associated Press.
Privately, a senior Iranian diplomat said his government had not made any decision about resuming the nuclear work and had responded positively to an offer in the European letter for a four-way meeting to discuss the issue. Iran wants the meeting held in Tehran, saying that it would be difficult for officials to leave the country so close to Iran's June 17 presidential elections. European diplomats said they wanted guarantees that Iran was serious about maintaining its nuclear suspension before Europe sent a delegation to the Iranian capital.