By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 21, 2006
UNITED NATIONS, Sept. 20 -- With Iran still resisting a freeze on its nuclear activities, the United States and five partners have decided to set yet another deadline in hopes that Iran will finally agree to terms paving the way for substantive talks on its nuclear program.
Under the plan, reached by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her counterparts from five other nations over a late-night dinner Tuesday, Iran will have until early October to agree to suspend its nuclear activities as the negotiations take place, diplomats said. At the meeting, Rice backed off the U.S. demand that the U.N. Security Council begin imposing sanctions over Iran's failure to meet previous deadlines, but noted that there is intense interest in the issue on Capitol Hill.
"Everyone wants to solve this through negotiation, everybody wants to solve this diplomatically," Rice said Wednesday, declining to confirm the new deadline.
The new deadline is the fourth in four months. Originally, when the six countries -- the United States, France, Britain, Germany, China and Russia -- offered on June 1 to discuss an array of incentives with Iran if it froze its uranium enrichment program, they demanded an answer by the end of June. That slipped to July, and then the end of August was set as the deadline in a Security Council resolution.
U.S. officials said they believe the deadline of the first week of October is firm, but at least one European diplomat suggested that the possibility of slippage remains.
"There is certainly no doubt in our mind how much longer we will see through continuation of the Solana track," one U.S. official said, referring to the efforts of European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who is spearheading the talks with Iran. "We have a hard end-date in mind." The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the ministers agreed not to announce the date.
Solana has held numerous talks with his Iranian counterpart, Ali Larijani, in an effort to find a formula that would allow the talks to begin. The United States granted a visa to Larijani so he could meet with Solana in New York this week, but Larijani did not show up. Larijani and Solana agreed in a telephone call to hold talks next week somewhere in Europe, the official Iranian news agency reported in Tehran.
"We must have a response fairly quickly," French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy told reporters. "It's becoming urgent."
Iran has resisted appearing to bow to international pressure to halt its program. In a speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran's nuclear activities are "transparent, peaceful and under the watchful eyes of IAEA inspectors," referring to the International Atomic Energy Agency. He denounced the effort to bring the issue to the Security Council, which he called "an instrument of threat and coercion."
Originally, Iran was told that no talks could start until it suspended the nuclear program. Officials are discussing the possibility of beginning the talks without the United States present, having Iran declare its willingness to suspend its program at the same time that action in the Security Council is halted, and then having the United States join the talks once the suspension is verified. Rice has said that she would attend the first meeting as the U.S. representative to the talks.
Meanwhile, President Bush met on Wednesday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Rice met with her counterparts in the Quartet, a coordinating group on Middle East peace that includes the European Union, Russia and the United Nations. The main topic of discussion was the Palestinian government led by the Islamic Resistance Movement, also known as Hamas -- which receives financial backing from Iran -- and how to persuade the militant group to give up its pledge to destroy Israel.
U.S. officials say that a cutoff of international aid has left Hamas desperate for a solution, but Europeans officials have pressed for ways to relieve the suffering of the Palestinians. The Quartet in a statement said that the group has agreed to expand and continue what was originally billed as a temporary measure to bypass the government and to bring aid to critical groups of Palestinians.