Iran Sets Condition to Halt Nuke Program

The Associated Press
Wednesday, February 21, 2007; 2:37 AM

VIENNA, Austria -- Iran's chief nuclear envoy said Tuesday his country wants to negotiate over its uranium enrichment program, on the eve of a U.N. Security Council deadline that carries the threat of harsher sanctions. But the country's hard-line president said Iran will halt enrichment only if Western nations do the same.

Sanctions could be triggered by a report from Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, to his agency's 35 board-member nations, expected Wednesday. That report is expected to say Iran has expanded enrichment activities instead of freezing them.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaking to a crowd of thousands in Iran, said his country was ready to stop its enrichment program, but only if Western nations do the same _ something the United States and others with similar programs are unlikely to even consider.

"Justice demands that those who want to hold talks with us shut down their nuclear fuel cycle program too," he said. "Then, we can hold dialogue under a fair atmosphere."

The White House dismissed Ahmadinejad's call.

"Do you believe that's a serious offer?" White House press secretary Tony Snow asked. "It's pretty clear that the international community has said to the Iranians, `You can have nuclear power but we don't want you to have the ability to build nuclear weapons.' And that is an offer we continue to make."

Nevertheless, Ahmadinejad's speech was unusually conciliatory, avoiding fiery denunciations of the West. Iran's call for talks _ voiced separately on Tuesday by Ahmadinejad, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and senior nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani _ suggested an attempt to convey flexibility on the eve of the deadline.

Mottaki, in Turkey, said talks on the nuclear dispute should try to achieve an agreement allowing "Iran to achieve its rights" while eliminating "concerns" about its nuclear ambitions. Larijani, in Vienna, said his country was "looking for ways and means to start negotiations."

But the officials did not offer what the Security Council is demanding _ an immediate and unconditional stop to enrichment. Iran has long insisted that it will not stop its nuclear activities as a condition for negotiations to start.

The United States and its allies suspect that Iran is using its nuclear program to produce an atomic weapon _ charges Iran denies, saying its aim is to generate electricity. Enriched to a low level, uranium is used to produce nuclear fuel, but further enrichment makes it suitable for use in building an atomic bomb.

Asked what Iran was seeking, Larijani said: "Constructive dialogue that could ... address the concerns" of both Tehran, which insists on enrichment as its right, and the world powers that fear the program would be used to develop nuclear arms.

While telling reporters his country was prepared to deliver "assurances that there would be no deviation ... toward a nuclear weapons program," he offered no new suggestions _ and indirectly ruled out suspending enrichment, saying that was just a "pretext" to put political pressure on his country.

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