By GEORGE JAHN
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.
Larijani was even more direct in rejecting an enrichment freeze as a precondition for negotiations in talks with ElBaradei, according to diplomats familiar with the substance of their conversation.
"He ruled out suspension and said Iran was not afraid of (U.N.) sanctions," one of the diplomats told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because his information was confidential. The diplomat said Larijani told ElBaradei that Iran could consider an enrichment freeze only as a result of talks _ and not before sitting down at the negotiating table.
Iran has rejected the Security Council resolution as "illegal," and said it would not give up its right to enrich under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Tehran's refusal to freeze all its enrichment-related activities prompted the U.N. Security Council on Dec. 23 to impose sanctions targeting its nuclear and missile programs and persons involved in them. Back then, it gave the country 60 days to halt enrichment or face additional measures _ a deadline that expires Wednesday.
Still, no sanctions were expected immediately.
Discussions on a new resolution aimed at stepping up pressure on Iran to suspend enrichment are expected to start next week, a Security Council diplomat said in New York, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The council debate will focus on what new nonmilitary sanctions to include in a resolution, the European diplomat said. Possible new sanctions could include a travel ban against individuals on the U.N. list, an expansion of the list, economic measures such as a ban on export guarantees to Iran, and an expansion of the nuclear embargo to an arms embargo, the council diplomat said.
But Russia and China, both veto-holding council members with close ties to Iran, are likely to oppose economic sanctions or weapons bans. A travel ban was dropped from the initial resolution because of Moscow's opposition, so tough negotiations are expected, the diplomat said.
Striking a combative note after meeting ElBaradei, Larijani warned the United States against opting for force instead of negotiations over the issue of enrichment.
"If they ... move into the boxing ring, they would have problems," Larijani told reporters in response to a question about U.S. pressure on Iran to give up enrichment. "But if they sit at the chess table, then both sides would come to a result."
With the U.S. recently moving against Iranians whom it accuses of helping Shiite militias in Iraq and beefing up its naval presence in the Persian Gulf, Larijani's comments were seen as veiled warnings that any additional U.S. weight on his country would be met in kind.
"Anybody interested in ... irrational moves ... would definitely receive an appropriate response," he said.
Iran has brought its war games maneuvers over the past year into busy shipping lanes in the Straits of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which two-fifths of the world's oil supplies pass, the top U.S. Navy commander in the Mideast said.
The moves have alarmed U.S. officials about possible accidental confrontations that could boil over into war, and led to the recent buildup of Navy forces in the Gulf, Vice Adm. Patrick Walsh said in an interview with the AP and other reporters in Bahrain.
The carrier USS John C. Stennis _ backed by a strike group with more than 6,500 sailors and Marines and with additional minesweeping ships _ arrived in the region Monday. It joined the carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower after President Bush ordered the buildup as a show of strength to Iran.
Associated Press writers Ali Akbar Dareinie in Tehran and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.