Iran Rejects Offer For Nuclear Talks

By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Iranian government has told senior European officials that it will not accept the only condition set by the Bush administration and its Western allies for talks on the country's nuclear program and will continue enriching uranium, despite the threat of international sanctions, several senior U.S. and European officials said yesterday.

Diplomats in Washington, Tehran and European capitals said the Iranian government is willing to enter negotiations and to consider a freeze of the program, but it will not accept a freeze as a precondition for the talks.

Ali Larijani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, informed Javier Solana, foreign policy chief for the European Union, of the decision in a phone call over the weekend. The two men will likely meet again today, along with representatives of France, Britain and Germany, to discuss the Iranian position. But U.S. officials said they would push for strong financial sanctions against the Tehran government and expected support from Europe.

The Iranian position is nearly identical to its initial reaction to the offer, which was presented in June and includes a package of U.S.-backed economic and political incentives. U.S., British and French diplomats concluded yesterday, after receiving word of Iran's intention, that the government simply bought time to advance its nuclear program, rather than scale it back as the U.N. resolution requires.

In Tehran, the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the nuclear program is peaceful and will continue. "The Islamic Republic of Iran has made its own decision, and in the nuclear case, God willing, with patience and power, will continue its path," Khamenei was quoted as saying by state television.

Mohammad Saeedi, the deputy director of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, told an Iranian news agency that "under current circumstances, the suspension of uranium enrichment is not possible." Still, he said Iran's response would be "very comprehensive" and would provide "a suitable opportunity for the West to solve the nuclear dossier through negotiations."

President Bush said yesterday that he would wait for the formal reply, but, anticipating the rejection, he urged the United Nations to respond forcefully. "There must be consequences if people thumb their nose at the United Nations Security Council, and we will work with people in the Security Council to achieve that objective," he said.

Earlier this month, the Security Council passed a resolution giving Iran 30 days to stop the program or face the threat of sanctions. For the first time, U.S. officials began feeling optimistic that sanctions could be achieved. "The U.N. resolution calls for us to come back together on the 31st of August," Bush said yesterday. "Dates -- you know, dates are fine, but what really matters is will, and one of the things I will continue to remind our friends and allies is the danger of a nuclear-armed" Iran.

But even some of Washington's closest allies worried yesterday that the effort was becoming more difficult, complicated by the recent fighting in Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah, which is backed financially and militarily by Iran.

"The Iranians are extremely confident following the outcome of the Israel conflict," said one senior European official, who agreed to discuss sensitive details in the matter on the condition of anonymity. "Their Syria-Iran-Hezbollah axis has gone from minority player to lionized hero of the Arab street."

A U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said senior U.S., French, German and British diplomats agreed during a conference call yesterday to press for sanctions.

Even before fighting broke out in Lebanon, many Security Council members seemed skittish about imposing financial measures against a major oil exporter.

For years, the Bush administration has tried to convince allies to pressure Iran to give up a program that the Tehran government insists is for generating electricity, and not part of a covert nuclear weapons effort.

But Iran, rich in oil and natural gas, built its nuclear program in secret over 18 years. It was forced to acknowledge the large-scale program and accept an outside investigation after an Iranian exile group, listed by the State Department as a terrorist organization, publicly revealed the location of Iran's largest nuclear facility, in Natanz, four years ago.

Since then, inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency have been trying to determine the scope and history of Iran's nuclear efforts. They have conducted hundreds of inspections, uncovered Iranian experiments with plutonium and uranium, and exposed a secret relationship between Iran and Pakistan, which was instrumental in the development of Iran's nuclear program.

The inspectors, however, have been unable to confirm Tehran's claims that its nuclear energy program is peaceful. Yesterday, officials in Vienna, where the IAEA is based, said Iran had refused a request by inspectors in the past week to view construction progress at the Natanz site, a vast complex that houses uranium-enrichment efforts.

Inspectors, preparing to report on Iran's program to U.N. members next month, are trying to determine how much uranium the Iranians have enriched in the last several months. Although Iran is advancing its nuclear efforts, U.N. inspectors, as well as analysts working for U.S. and British intelligence, believe the Iranians are technically poor at enriching uranium.

Based on what is known about Iran's program, Western intelligence believes that it will be years before Iran can manufacture enough uranium for a nuclear bomb.

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