Ahmadinejad Says Proposal By the West Is 'Step Forward'

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 17, 2006

SHANGHAI, June 16 -- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Friday that an international proposal designed to restart negotiations on Iran's nuclear program constitutes "a step forward" and that his government will respond "in due time."

Ahmadinejad, who met with reporters after attending a summit conference of the six-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organization, seemed to go out of his way to emphasize a willingness to give the proposal serious consideration even though it calls on Iran to halt uranium enrichment before new talks can proceed. But he refused to be pinned down on when Iran might respond and whether it could ever accept shutting down the enrichment program.

"Generally speaking, we regard this package as a step forward, and we will give a response in due time based on the interests of the people of the Islamic Republic of Iran," he said.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme Iranian leader, used a considerably harsher tone in remarks published in Tehran on Thursday. According to the official Iranian press, he said Iran will never give up its nuclear program and will not pay attention to the threat of U.N. Security Council sanctions.

Ahmadinejad, cast here in a diplomatic role, said his meetings with Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Hu Jintao of China showed that the three countries' views are "close, even identical" on many issues, including opposition to what he described as efforts by some countries to impose their will on Iran through unacceptable pressure.

Russia and China, both veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council, have shown reluctance to join the United States and European allies in threatening Iran with sanctions if it refuses the package of proposals for resuming nuclear talks. But Ahmadinejad declined to say whether he sought or received assurances during his talks here that Russia and China will continue to oppose Security Council sanctions.

"On the nuclear issue, we have continuous consultations and cooperation with China and Russia," he said. "All of us are seeking a peaceful solution to this issue. And all of us are trying to prevent the Inquisition-like tendencies of certain powers."

China and Russia, along with Germany, last week joined the three other permanent Security Council members -- the United States, Britain and France -- in offering a package of incentives for resuming the suspended nuclear negotiations. The Bush administration, in a change of policy, promised to join the negotiations provided that Iran first stops enriching uranium and maintains the halt during talks.

U.S. officials have expressed fear that the Iranian program is designed to produce nuclear weapons, which Washington regards as unacceptable in the hands of Iran's militant Islamic government. Iran has consistently denied that intention, however, saying its goal is to produce nuclear energy.

"We are not seeking to develop nuclear weapons," Ahmadinejad reiterated Friday.

The government of Hu Jintao has publicly urged Iran to accept the new proposals. Hu pressed the point with Ahmadinejad in a meeting earlier, according to the New China News Agency. But the government has displayed patience -- and urged other nations to do the same -- as Tehran ponders its response. It has also repeatedly cautioned that diplomacy is preferable to threats of sanctions or other punitive steps.

Ahmadinejad sought to portray the dissension over Iran's nuclear program as the result of a desire by some countries to impose their will on others, a reference to the United States and its European partners. That is the "root cause" of the crisis, he said, adding, "Any relationship based on unilateralism and humiliation is unjust and unsustainable."

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization -- comprising Russia, China, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan -- is refreshingly free of U.S. influence, he suggested, and could help Iran weather this crisis. Iran, which is currently an observer, has applied for full membership in the security and economic grouping, which was founded five years ago under Chinese leadership.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company