By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 2, 2006
VIENNA, June 1 -- The United States and five other major world powers agreed Thursday to offer Iran a broad new collection of rewards if it halts its drive to master nuclear technology, but they threatened "further steps in the Security Council" if Iran refuses.
The agreement, announced here by British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett following extended talks, brings general unity to the countries' approach to Iran after months of discord, diplomats said. It is intended to sharpen the choice facing Iran, giving it a clear reason to opt for cooperation over confrontation on its nuclear program.
"There are two paths ahead," Beckett told reporters, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and counterparts from Russia, China, France, Germany and the European Union stood at her side. "We urge Iran to take the positive path and to consider seriously our substantive proposals, which would bring significant benefits."
Beckett made the announcement near midnight Tehran time. There was no immediate response from the Iranian government.
Rice, who spent more than eight hours in sometimes freewheeling talks with her counterparts Thursday, flew here after announcing a major shift in U.S. policy on Wednesday -- a willingness to join the negotiations with Iran that have been led, unsuccessfully, by Britain, France and Germany, provided Iran suspends its uranium-enrichment activities first.
Iranian diplomats on Thursday did not reject outright the U.S. proposal for talks, but they criticized the demand that their country end enrichment first.
Although details of the five- to six-page document agreed to in Vienna were not announced, incentives discussed before the meeting included an international effort to assist Iran's nuclear industry, including construction of a light-water reactor and guarantees of a long-term supply of fuel. That would represent a significant shift from the Bush administration's past insistence that Iran has no need for nuclear power. Increased trade and investment have also been discussed.
Aides to Rice said the deal also commits China and Russia to a long list of specific steps to punish Iran if it refuses to halt its enrichment program. Both countries have resisted sanctions for months, arguing that they could backfire.
Addressing reporters here, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov emphasized the incentives in the package and did not mention possible negative measures. He said it was important that all six powers be united in making the offer, including the United States, which he said found it difficult to offer inducements to Iran.
The possible sanctions in the agreement are listed as a menu, ranging from minor to major, diplomats said. It was unclear whether there was agreement on which options to choose if Iran fails to act.
Diplomats have said that measures under discussion include an embargo on export of goods and technologies relevant to nuclear programs, the freezing of assets of organizations and people involved in the programs, and a suspension of technical cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Broader measures include a freeze on bilateral contacts, a visa and travel ban for senior Iranian officials, an arms embargo, an embargo on certain exports and an end to support for Iran's bid to join the World Trade Organization.
The Bush administration has repeatedly declared it "unacceptable" to have Iran armed with nuclear weapons. While publicly declaring that no option was "off the table," an allusion to military action, it had been struggling to organize unified diplomatic pressure against the country by all five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.
Beckett read the brief statement after the diplomats huddled over it for two hours, fiddling with the wording. It emphasized the positive, while using vague code words for tough action, which U.S. officials said stemmed from a desire to persuade Iran to return to negotiations. Even speaking anonymously, U.S. officials repeatedly refused to characterize the possible punishments for Iran as "sanctions," using words such as "steps," "measures," "actions" and "negative disincentives."
"We are prepared to resume negotiations should Iran resume suspension of all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, as required by the IAEA, and we would also suspend action in the Security Council," Beckett said.
Representatives of some of the countries involved -- but not the United States -- will present the package to Iran in the "coming days," and an answer is expected before the Group of Eight industrialized countries meet in St. Petersburg in mid-July, a U.S. official told reporters. He said the countries had agreed not to disclose details until after Iran had received a full presentation and been allowed time to "digest it."
Germany's foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said Russia and China were considering joining the United States and the Europeans in the talks with Iran.
Iran offered a mixed initial reply earlier Thursday to the Bush administration's offer to join talks on the country's nuclear program: It welcomed the opportunity to deflect confrontation while resisting demands that it suspend work on the program first.
"We believe that under the current circumstances, negotiations without any precondition would be the best solution to put an end to the Tehran-Washington logjam," said Hamid Reza Asefi, spokesman for Iran's Foreign Ministry, in an interview with the official press agency IRNA.
Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, reiterated the proviso, telling reporters, "We won't negotiate about the Iranian nation's natural nuclear rights but are prepared, within a defined, just framework and without any discrimination, to hold dialogue about common concerns."
Analysts and diplomats described the responses as preliminary. The most powerful elements of Iran's theocratic government remained silent on the U.S. proposal and were said to be intensely engaged in the private consultations that precede major policy announcements in Tehran.
The measured tenor of the Iranian diplomats' initial replies appeared to signal that their country was at least not dismissing the start of a process it had actively solicited in recent weeks, through back-channel messages seeking direct engagement with Washington. But one analyst in regular contact with the Tehran government said the full response would reflect skepticism about Bush's sincerity.
"The perception here is basically that the U.S. did what it did in response to domestic pressure inside the U.S., and also to convince the Russians and Chinese" to back stronger pressure on Iran, said Nasser Hadian-Jazy, a political scientist at Tehran University.
He predicted Iran's final response would stop short of obliging the Americans but go far enough to convince Moscow or Beijing of its good intentions. It might include steps such as suspending the installation of the next two enrichment systems and letting U.N. inspectors conduct snap inspections for the duration of the negotiations.
Correspondent Karl Vick in Tehran contributed to this report.