By Karl Vick and Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 7, 2006
TEHRAN, June 6 -- The confidential diplomatic package backed by Washington and formally presented to Iran on Tuesday leaves open the possibility that Tehran will be able to enrich uranium on its own soil, U.S. and European officials said.
That concession, along with a promise of U.S. assistance for an Iranian civilian nuclear energy program, is conditioned on Tehran suspending its current nuclear work until the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency determines with confidence that the program is peaceful. U.S. officials said Iran would also need to satisfy the U.N. Security Council that it is not seeking a nuclear weapon, a benchmark that White House officials believe could take years, if not decades, to achieve.
But the Bush administration and its European allies have withdrawn their demand that Iran abandon any hope of enriching uranium for nuclear power, according to several European and U.S. officials with knowledge of the offer. The new position, which has not been acknowledged publicly by the White House, differs significantly from the Bush administration's stated determination to prevent Iran from mastering technology that could be used to develop nuclear weapons.
"We are basically now saying that over the long haul, if they restore confidence, that this Iranian regime can have enrichment at home," said one U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But they have to answer every concern given all that points to a secret weapons program."
Iran built its nuclear program in secret over 18 years. The effort was exposed by dissidents in 2002, setting off a U.N. investigation that has not found proof of a weapons program but has been unable to rule one out. Iran maintains that the program was designed for nuclear energy, not weapons.
In private discussions among the United States and its allies concerning possible action against Iran, Germany had suggested that Iran could be allowed to continue, under strict U.N. monitoring, its current enrichment research while negotiations commenced. But the Bush administration, as well as the governments of France and Britain, disagreed, arguing that Iran must suspend the program until suspicions regarding its true nature are cleared up.
The list of incentives that European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana detailed to Iranian officials here on Tuesday was endorsed by the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany. It contains not only the revamped American promises on enrichment but a U.S. offer to join negotiations directly if Iran suspends its program, as well as pledges of European assistance in building additional light-water nuclear power plants and support for Iranian membership in the World Trade Organization.
"We had constructive talks," Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, told reporters after the two-hour meeting in the palatial offices of Iran's Supreme National Security Council. "There are some positive steps in it and also some ambiguities."
Larijani did not elaborate, but diplomats said the atmospherics surrounding the meeting appeared to reinforce recent assurances by Iranian officials that the new proposal would be considered seriously. Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, appointed by hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, vowed to study "Europe's incentive package," a description that accentuated the proposal's positive elements.
Speaking privately, a senior Iranian official said that the offer appeared to have much worthy of consideration.
European and American diplomats expressed relief.
"Our first aim was already achieved because they didn't reject" the offer, one European diplomat said.
Talking with reporters in Laredo, Tex., President Bush said Larijani's reaction to the proposals "sounds like a positive response to me."
"I want to solve this issue with Iran diplomatically. . . . We will see if the Iranians take our offer seriously. The choice is theirs to make," Bush said.
The new package embodies the "robust diplomacy" that Bush endorsed, according to U.S. officials, in hopes of broadening policy options that had been narrowing to two unattractive options: military strikes on Iran's known nuclear facilities, or acquiescence to an Iranian nuclear program that was only lightly monitored by the IAEA.
Diplomats said the bid also includes elements mentioned in earlier rounds of negotiations: Washington would selectively relax long-standing economic sanctions to allow the sale of spare parts for civilian airliners to Iran, as well as technology for earthquake early-warning systems and meteorological study. Like the American offer to join the talks directly, the moves signal at least the potential for further future engagement between Washington and Tehran.
But a deal will pivot first on Iran's decision whether to suspend enrichment, a move it has repeatedly insisted it will not make. A diplomat said the offer reflected weeks of intense and high-level discussions in Washington and in Tehran aimed at deflecting confrontation.
"Each side has taken a more serious look at what the other wants and how compromise can be reached," a Western diplomat said.
In the Bush administration's view, the possibility for Iran to one day enrich uranium was "a very important part of the deal, and it's what will allow Iran to accept it," said a U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Iran always spun previous offers as an attempt to keep it from exercising its rights to enrich. Now that is explicitly not the case."
The move also reflects a new reality: Iran announced in April that it had made advancements toward industrial-level enrichment of uranium. Iranian officials boasted that the achievement "changed the facts on the ground."
Tehran likely will fight to retain that capability on a small scale. "This will be the big issue, and the Iranians will hold out, since they are already doing it anyway," the U.S. official said.
To allow Iran to proceed with other elements of its nuclear program, such as bringing online a power plant nearing completion at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf, the proposal suggests that Iran import enriched uranium from Russia for the duration of its own enrichment moratorium.
Diplomats in Washington and European capitals now expect weeks of private contacts among European, Iranian, Russian, Chinese and U.S. officials to work out details for negotiations over the package -- talks about talks, since the package is intended to reopen formal negotiations. Officials said the latter could begin as soon as next month, if Iran agrees to take a first step forward by suspending its current research and development work.
"They need time to swallow and actually digest not only the proposal but also the American moves, especially the latter," said a European diplomat resident in Iran who asked not to be identified further.
"The most significant part of the package is that the Americans said they're willing to sit at the table. Everything else, I think, is minor compared to that."
No formal deadline has been announced for Iran's response, although Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has described a time frame of weeks rather than months. Other diplomats said a "natural deadline" would be the summit of the Group of Eight industrialized nations set to begin July 15 in St. Petersburg.
Linzer reported from New York. Staff writer Michael Abramowitz in Laredo contributed to this report.