By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 25, 2005
European officials who met with Iranian negotiators yesterday to discuss the country's nuclear program went further than the Bush administration had wanted by leaving open the possibility that Tehran could conduct preliminary work with uranium in the future, said diplomats from several countries involved in the talks in Brussels.
But the uranium work could come only as part of a final agreement, and for now Iran was urged to maintain a freeze of its nuclear program while negotiations continue, they said.
It is unclear whether Iran will comply with the request, which will be the subject of a high-level meeting among the Europeans and Iranians today in Geneva. The Europeans have made it clear that if Iran resumes conversion work now, it will spell the end of their negotiations and could lead to action by the U.N. Security Council -- something the Bush administration has been pushing for and the Iranians hope to avoid.
Iran has frozen its nuclear program over the past six months as part of a deal it entered into with France, Britain and Germany in November. But Iranian officials say they are frustrated with the pace of negotiations that have not delivered on economic incentives for Tehran.
As a result, Iran has said it plans to resume uranium conversion, the preliminary step in a lengthy process to produce fuel for nuclear energy. But that process can also produce weapons-grade uranium.
To alleviate that concern, Iran offered to convert the material to fuel rods and keep them under international seal, according to a letter an Iranian official sent European foreign ministers on Saturday. It has also floated an alternate idea to ship the material to Russia for enrichment there. The material would then be used exclusively for fueling a Russian-built power reactor inside Iran.
In a meeting last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Jack Straw, her British counterpart, that the United States is opposed to any agreement that would allow Iran to continue converting uranium, U.S. officials said.
The Europeans, who have been negotiating with Iran but consulting Washington, went halfway. At a breakfast yesterday in Brussels, officials from the three European countries told Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns they need to be more flexible if they hope to achieve a final agreement with Iran, said two officials who had been briefed on the meeting.
The European position took the Bush administration by surprise, a U.S. official said, and suggested that Washington and its European allies may not be as closely aligned on a strategy for Iran as their public statements have suggested in recent weeks.
"We're not interested in this kind of an arrangement," a senior Bush administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. The official stressed that the White House expected the Europeans to work toward a total cessation and dismantlement of Iran's nuclear program, including the uranium-conversion facility in the town of Isfahan.
"We felt assured that conversion would not be on the table now or in the future," said another U.S. official who, like others involved, would discuss the private negotiations only if not identified.
One European official said the message given later yesterday to the Iranians was that any conversion work at this time would be unacceptable. "But that clearly leaves a door open for it in the future and the Iranians understood that," the official said.
The Iranians did not comment directly on the discussions and focused on the higher-level meeting set for today in Geneva with their national security council chief, Hassan Rouhani, and the foreign ministers of France, Britain and Germany.
"I think these talks are more difficult and complicated than ever. There is no guarantee of reaching an agreement," Hossein Mousavian, an Iranian negotiator, told reporters in Brussels.
Last month, the negotiations hit a crisis point, leaving the Bush administration feeling it was closer than it has been in two years to getting the Iran issue moved to the U.N. Security Council, which has the authority to impose sanctions. In a strongly worded letter to Iran, European officials said they would support a Security Council referral if Tehran made good on threats to restart the Isfahan facility.
In a reply sent Saturday to the foreign ministers of France, Britain and Germany, Rouhani confirmed that Iran is contemplating resuming operations at the Isfahan plant. A copy of the letter was made available to The Washington Post.
Rouhani wrote that Iran wants to avert a breakdown in talks and move quickly toward an agreement with Europe that would respect Iran's rights to nuclear fuel and lead to better relations.
He outlined seven immediate steps Iran has offered to take to quell suspicions about the nuclear program it built in secret over 18 years. Among them: stationing of inspectors at nuclear sites, forgoing the sensitive process of plutonium separation, and converting all current uranium into fuel rods for safe storage.
Iran says its program is solely for nuclear energy. But the scale and covert nature of the effort have led to suspicions that Tehran intended to use the program as a cover for atomic weapons. A two-year investigation by U.N. inspectors has turned up no proof of that.