By Glenn Kessler and Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signaled yesterday that a temporary suspension of Iran's nuclear programs might be enough to pave the way for the first direct negotiations involving the United States and Iran in more than a quarter-century.
Speaking to reporters as she flew to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Rice said Iran needs to suspend uranium-enrichment activities before talks can begin, but she did not rule out something less than a permanent suspension. In talks over the weekend between Iranian and European officials, the chief Iranian negotiator offered a two-month freeze at the start of the talks.
"The point is, there would have to be a suspension," Rice said when asked about Iran's proposal. "If there is a suspension, we can have discussions, but there has to be a suspension. As far as I know, the Iranians have not yet said that they would suspend prior to negotiations."
Rice said she has not "heard any Iranian offer, so I don't know what to make of that," adding: "But the question is: Are they prepared to suspend, verifiably, so that negotiations can begin? That's the issue."
Rice's comments followed a round of private calls she had in the past day with European counterparts and came after positive meetings between European and Iranian officials. Two days of talks in Vienna between Ali Larijani, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, and Javier Solana of the European Union went well, and both sides said they will meet again Thursday, according to diplomats from both sides who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.
"First of all, it's suspension, verified suspension -- that's the condition," Rice said. "Secondly, it's suspension for suspension," she said, meaning that if Iran freezes its program, then the United States and its allies would halt a push for U.N. sanctions.
France, Britain and Germany have committed to push for sanctions against Iran if it does not halt its uranium-enrichment program, but the Europeans are also eager to find a route to negotiations. Other members of the European Union have strongly supported talks, rather than punitive measures, noting that Iran's technical progress on its nuclear program has been marginal while its position as a major oil exporter leaves it with significant leverage to batter European economies. Japan, which has billions of dollars' worth of investments in Iran's oil and gas industry, has been reluctant to back sanctions.
But all parties, including Russia and China -- two of Iran's closest economic partners -- have publicly said that Tehran must suspend its nuclear program for talks to begin.
Iran quit negotiations with the Europeans a year ago and restarted its nuclear program. In an effort to coax Iran back to the negotiating table, Rice announced in May that the United States would join the talks if Iran suspended its program again. The United States and its partners offered Iran the prospect of economic incentives if negotiations are successful -- or an escalating series of sanctions if the talks fail.
The Institute for Science and International Security, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, yesterday posted a copy of Iran's confidential 21-page response to the offer of incentives that was officially conveyed in June.
David Albright, president of ISIS, said the document is tough to grasp and sometimes contradictory, but that there are positive elements, including a willingness to discuss suspension of uranium enrichment, even as Iran rejected the right of the U.N. Security Council to order a halt to enrichment activities. "This is not a hollow offer by the Iranians," he said -- adding, however, that "you just get mad reading this thing."
Iran, in its response, indicated willingness to comply with a Security Council obligation to freeze the program as long as it is not a precondition for talks. The Vienna meetings are aimed at finding face-saving ways out of the staunch positions all sides have taken while facilitating a path toward negotiations, officials said.
Rice spoke by telephone with Solana and with Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency overseeing a probe of Iran's nuclear program. Agency inspectors, in their fourth year of investigation, have not found proof of a weapons program but have also been unable to verify Iran's assertion that the enrichment program is strictly for energy production.
Rice reiterated yesterday that if the talks do not materialize, the United States will push for sanctions. "Our clock would be running, too," she said. "Nobody is going to become accustomed to a nuclear-armed Iran. That's why we're on this course."