Iran Pushes For Talks Without Conditions

By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Iran offered yesterday to enter into immediate and "serious" negotiations on a broad range of issues with the Bush administration and its European allies but refused to abide by a U.N. Security Council demand that it suspend work at its nuclear facilities by the end of the month.

Tehran's proposal came in response to an offer in June by the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China for talks on the country's nuclear program, and the possibility of future cooperation, if the Islamic republic would first agree to suspend its uranium-enrichment work.

Last month, the Security Council passed a resolution making a suspension mandatory and threatening Iran with economic sanctions if it did not comply by Aug. 31. Without a commitment to do so, the Iranian counteroffer appeared unlikely to ease a tense, years-long standoff over what Tehran insists is an energy program but Washington believes is a covert effort to develop nuclear weapons.

Bush administration officials said yesterday that they will need time to study the Iranian response. But they vowed to press ahead with efforts to impose economic sanctions against Iran if it fails to meet the Security Council deadline to freeze its nuclear program.

"If, on the other hand, the Iranians have chosen the path of cooperation, as we've said repeatedly, then a different relationship with the United States and the rest of the world is now possible," U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said yesterday at the United Nations.

European officials, however, were quieter, saying privately that they did not want to rush toward sanctions before the deadline. U.S. diplomats at the United Nations tried to organize a meeting for today in New York, but European officials said they have no plans to attend. The European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, who has been carrying messages between Europe and Tehran, is expected to meet with Iran's chief negotiator, Ali Larijani, in Brussels this week, according to European and Iranian officials.

For years, the Bush administration has tried to persuade allies to pressure Iran to give up a program it built secretly over 18 years.

But the Iranian response comes at a difficult time, when Iran is feeling emboldened in the region and the Security Council is juggling a multitude of crises in the Middle East, including the Iraq war and recent fighting in southern Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran and Syria. The instability has made many council members wary of ratcheting up pressure on Iran, a major oil supplier, if it will mean further confrontation in the region.

"Iran's response today is clearly a 'no' for Washington," said George Perkovich, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "But it's hard to see how the U.S. can mobilize others to stop the Iranian program at this point when the last thing anyone wants is more conflict," Perkovich said.

Iranian officials and analysts portrayed their proposal as a positive outcome meant to signal a national desire to repair 27 years of fractured relations with Washington. They said it was the result of months of difficult internal debate among Iran's ruling elite.

"Iran's response indicates the balance has tipped in favor of more moderate voices in Iranian politics seeking a modus vivendi with U.S. power" in the region, said Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, an Iranian policy analyst who wrote several books on the country's nuclear program.

In a multi-page letter hand-delivered to European ambassadors in Tehran yesterday, Larijani laid out an Iranian desire for negotiations beyond the country's nuclear program, Iranian, U.S. and European officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. State-run television in Iran quoted Larijani as telling diplomats his country was "prepared as of August 23rd to enter serious negotiations."

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