Time Up for Iran's Answer on Weapon

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Bush administration is poised to press the U.N. Security Council to begin the process of imposing punitive action against Iran, after signals over the weekend that Tehran will not provide the straightforward acceptance or rejection today of a U.S.-backed proposal designed to prevent it from developing a nuclear weapon, U.S. and European officials said yesterday.

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana is scheduled to meet Iranian negotiator Ali Larijani today in Brussels to get an answer, a meeting that already had been delayed a week. But over the weekend, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Solana had not provided answers about what Iranian officials have termed ambiguities in the plan.

Meanwhile, the Iranian ambassador to Switzerland said Iran would not be ready to provide an answer until August. In a telephone interview, an Iranian official in Tehran said yesterday that the regime had been transparent about its concerns.

The United States and some Security Council countries have now concluded that Iran has decided to test American resolve and the solidarity of Security Council cooperation, U.S. and European officials said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to leave today for talks in Paris tomorrow with the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany to discuss Iran before the Group of Eight summit of industrial nations later this week. With Iran insisting that it needs more time, Rice is expected to urge Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany to begin the process of imposing the sticks in the carrots-or-sticks proposal, U.S. and European officials said.

Rice warned Iran yesterday about the consequences of delaying. "We hope that the Iranians choose the path before them for cooperation, but, of course, we can always return to the other path should we need to. And that path . . . was, of course, the path to the Security Council," she said in a joint news conference with new British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett. "Now, it's our great hope that we are going to get an authoritative answer, but this is something that we're going to take up and consider when we meet in Paris."

The timing is critical. The Bush administration wants an answer before the G-8 meeting in Russia, while Moscow wants a spirit of cooperation to produce a positive outcome on many issues. Russia and China have been the toughest holdouts to imposing punitive action on Iran. After the G-8 meeting, Russia may not be as cooperative in pressing Iran or considering tough action if it balks, U.S. and European officials say.

Reflecting the growing disappointment with Iran's position, Beckett said that Tehran, in fact, has so far not asked for any clarifications. "We keep hearing from Iran remarks made to others that there are ambiguities in the offer that still have to be resolved," she said at a lunch with reporters. "But I'm not aware of any questions having been asked."

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that Iran already had six weeks to respond to the specifics and to make a decision to engage in negotiations designed to ensure it cannot subvert its peaceful nuclear program to develop a weapon.

"This is not to come up with a final negotiated solution," he told reporters. "That's what negotiation is about. This is about coming to the table."

Iran appears particularly intent on maintaining an independent capability to enrich uranium. After years of resisting any role in dealing with Iran, the Bush administration has reversed course and decided to join talks if Tehran agrees to suspend enrichment activities.

"The Iranian tactic is transparently trying to string the whole thing out while not doing the one thing that is required -- suspend uranium enrichment," said a senior European diplomat familiar with negotiations but unable to discuss them publicly. "They are smiling and saying 'We like it' while in practice they are saying no."

Beckett, on her first trip to the United States as foreign secretary, said the Iranian reaction so far makes outsiders wonder whether Tehran fully understands what position it is in.

The details of the proposal, presented to Iran in early June, are still officially secret. But the incentives include a light water reactor, an international fuel consortium to provide fuel for it, and parts for its U.S. aircraft, U.S. officials said. The "disincentives" include a menu of options that fall into three categories -- travel restrictions for officials, economic restrictions, and financial or trade restrictions. They do not include sanctions on oil or gas exports. Denying Iran access to financial markets and an ability to move money around are considered the most serious.

Once the five permanent Security Council members and Germany agree to use the sticks, they would then select which actions to take, U.S. and European officials said.

But the United States may face further hurdles in winning agreement. Although there is unanimity behind the proposal, there is no specific agreement about a final deadline or at what point disincentives should be used.

Staff writer Michael A. Fletcher contributed to this report.


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