Iran Guardedly Considers Offer

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 3, 2006

TEHRAN, June 2 -- Iranian officials on Friday appeared to be studying a plan laid out by the United States and five other major powers for the future of the country's nuclear program but offered no clues on what their decision might be.

Government clerics and technocrats voiced vociferous objections to a demand that Iran suspend its pursuit of uranium enrichment and reprocessing as a condition for resuming negotiations, but they stopped short of signaling that meant the package was doomed to rejection.

In a statement that reflected the public relations challenge Iran faces after months of insisting it would never scale back its nuclear program, Mohammad Saeedi, the deputy head of the country's atomic energy agency, told a student news agency: "Accepting the conditions that America has set at the start of the talks is almost impossible."

"The people of Iran will not allow us to stop nuclear enrichment," he said.

The "almost" in Saeedi's statement was one of several signs that senior officials in Iran's theocratic government were assessing how to respond to the still-confidential set of incentives and possible penalties contained in the plan. Just five days earlier, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds ultimate authority in Iran, had framed the question in absolute terms.

"The young Iranian scientists, with their great success in nuclear technology, have guaranteed the long-term energy future of the country," Khamenei said before a gathering of parliament members, referring to uranium enrichment accomplished in April at a facility south of the capital. "We must not lose this at any price, because any retreat would be a 100 percent loss."

Analysts said Iranian decision-makers were in the early stages of what would probably be an extended internal debate over whether to accept the condition offered by the United States and an apparently united U.N. Security Council.

"It will be subject to special and extensive consideration," said Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a professor of international law at Tehran's Supreme National Defense University. "I hope the final response is moderate and flexible."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who finalized the package with her counterparts from Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain on Thursday in Vienna, said on NBC's "Today" show that Iran should produce a firm answer in weeks rather than months.

In an indication that Iran was treading carefully, a relatively moderate cleric delivered the sermon at Friday prayers in Tehran, substituting for the ultraconservative ayatollah whose turn it was in the regular rotation but who has a reputation for particularly unrestrained oratory. Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, nonetheless, delivered a blistering attack on the United States for accusing Iran of pursuing nuclear weapons.

"Rice claims Iran's access to nuclear warfare will put the world security in danger, while we have said time and again that nuclear arms have no position in our defense program," Khatami said. "The U.S. government has over the past 50 years independently and indirectly launched military strikes on 25 independent states. If that's not insecurity, then what is?"

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also spoke Friday but broke no new ground on the issue, complaining of the double standard implicit in Iran being denied a nuclear program by countries with large stockpiles of atomic weapons.

"If acquiring nuclear energy is not good, no country should benefit from it," he said, according to the government news agency IRNA.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company