Europeans Agree to Meeting With Iran on Nuclear Program

By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The foreign ministers of France, Britain and Germany agreed yesterday to meet with a senior Iranian official next week in an effort to pull Tehran back from threats to resume its nuclear program, diplomats representing all four countries said.

Iranian officials characterized the meeting as a last chance at avoiding crisis and said it will be held May 23 in Brussels. European officials said it probably will take place one day later and might be moved to Paris or Geneva to accommodate travel schedules.

European officials, who agreed to discuss strategy for the meeting on the condition of anonymity, said the European ministers are hoping to persuade Hassan Rouhani, chief of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, to maintain a freeze on the country's nuclear program at least until after presidential elections there scheduled for June 17. Iranian officials have said publicly that they are under pressure ahead of the elections to show positive results from their negotiations with the Europeans, and that if nothing is forthcoming, they will be forced to resume the program.

The Bush administration has said publicly it wants the European negotiations with Iran to succeed, and has backed European offers for Iranian entry into the World Trade Organization. But privately, the administration has been preparing for the possibility of failure since Iran began making threats last week to resume work at a uranium conversion facility.

If Iran is not dissuaded from resuming the nuclear work, U.S. and European officials said its program will become the subject of discussion inside the U.N. Security Council, which can impose sanctions. Two U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive diplomacy, said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plans to discuss the possibility of a Security Council referral when she meets with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in Washington today.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday that "we've had discussions about Iran with members of the Security Council." But he would not characterize the level of support the United States would anticipate there. China and Russia have said they want the issue resolved by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has been investigating Iran's program, not the Security Council. Other Security Council members are leery of making any moves that could be perceived as hostile or that might be used to justify later military action against Iran.

The diplomatic crisis over Iran's nuclear program was sparked by a difficult round of negotiations last month in London between Iranians and Europeans aimed at resolving suspicions about the nuclear program Iran developed in secret over 18 years. Iran says it intended the program for nuclear energy, not weapons, but has allowed IAEA to conduct inspections there for the last two years. Although unanswered questions about the program remain, inspectors have not found proof that Iran is using it as a cover for bomb making. The Bush administration has not accepted those findings.

The negotiations with Europe offered Iran the possibility of lucrative trade deals if it provides guarantees that its program won't be diverted for weapons work.

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