By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 19, 2008 7:24 PM
High-level international talks on Iran's nuclear program ended inconclusively today in Geneva, with European envoy Javier Solana telling reporters that Iran needed to give a more definitive answer within two weeks.
The meeting was significant because for the first time a U.S. diplomat, Undersecretary of State William J. Burns, joined other envoys in meeting with the top Iranian nuclear negotiator. U.S. officials had said the shift in Bush administration policy was intended to help lead to a breakthrough in the impasse over the Iranian program, but if Iran failed to respond positively, it only would unify the international coalition dealing with Iran.
"It was a constructive meeting, but still we didn't get the answer to our questions," Solana said at a news conference. "We hope very much we get the answer and we hope it will be done in a couple of weeks."
Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili described the talks as "constructive and progressing," adding that "on the manner of continuing the negotiations we have understood better our mutual positions."
European officials said they were disappointed by the Iranian response, believing that Jalili missed a clear opportunity to engage on the substance of the revised proposal. Jalili did not respond directly to Burns' presentation, instead simply sticking to generalities, one official said.
Iran has adamantly denied it embarked on a nuclear program -- which it hid for 18 years -- to develop fuel for weapons, arguing it is legally enriching uranium to generate electricity. The U.N. Security Council has passed four resolutions demanding that Iran halt uranium enrichment, and a coalition made up of the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany has offered Iran a package of economic, political and security incentives if it agreed to the suspension and began negotiations on constraints on its nuclear work.
Solana, the European Union foreign-policy chief, is leading the talks for the coalition known as the "P5 plus 1," which represents the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany.
Asked whether Tehran faces a new round of U.N. sanctions if a positive answer is not provided, Solana replied: "The Iranians know very well what will continue to happen if nothing happens otherwise."
European officials said that Solana made clear that Iran had only two weeks to make a definitive response or risk facing new sanctions.
Iran has repeatedly said it would not accept suspension as a precondition to negotiations. To entice Iran to the negotiating table, Solana has proposed an interim period, known as "freeze-for-freeze," a six-week period under which the coalition would end efforts to expand sanctions and Iran would not expand its enrichment activities. Then formal negotiations would begin, with the United States at the table, if Iran suspended its program.
Last month, the six nations seeking to negotiate with Iran sweetened the terms of their offer to broaden economic and political ties if Iran halts its nuclear program. While little attention was paid to Iran's security needs in an offer two years ago, the new one spoke of respecting "territorial integrity" and encouraging "direct contact and dialogue" with Iran -- and said the nations were committed to "support Iran in playing an important and constructive role in international affairs."
"When his turn to speak arose, Ambassador Burns delivered a clear message: the United States is serious in its support for the package Mr. Solana conveyed in Tehran last month, the United States is serious in its support of P5+1 unity, and the United States with its P5+1 partners are serious that Iran must suspend uranium enrichment to have negotiations involving the United States," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in a statement.
McCormack added: "We hope the Iranian people understand that their leaders need to make a choice between cooperation, which would bring benefits to all, and confrontation, which can only led to further isolation."
European officials have long sought the U.S. presence at the Solana-led negotiations, but Bush administration officials said that the move to include Burns at today's meeting was a "one-time event" designed to emphasize to Iran that progress would not be made unless Iran suspended enrichment.
Though Iranian officials had publicly welcomed Burns' participation, U.S. officials privately suggested today that the Iranians were flummoxed by his presence in Geneva. "They clearly were not able to get their act together to give an answer," one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because McCormack's statement was the official U.S. response. "I think we have the Iranians on the back foot."
"Diplomacy is like an Iranian carpet that goes ahead by millimeters, our diplomacy is also intricate and exact and god willing will have a beautiful, exquisite and long living result, said Jalili, according to the TABNAK website.
Correspondent Thomas Erdbrink contributed to this report.