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Defense secretary Robert M. Gates skeptical of Iran's claims about nuclear deal

By Craig Whitlock
Sunday, February 7, 2010; A18

ANKARA, TURKEY -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Saturday played down assertions by Iran that it is ready to reach a deal on its nuclear program, saying Tehran's overall response to overtures from the Obama administration has been "quite disappointing."

On Friday, in a speech at a security conference in Munich, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said his country was "nearing a final agreement that can be accepted by all parties."

His statement came three days after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad signaled that Iran was prepared to accept a deal offered by the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany, under which Tehran would hand over a stockpile of uranium for processing outside the country.

In exchange, Iran would receive enriched fuel that would enable it to power a reactor for medical research but not make bombs.

During a visit to the Turkish capital, Ankara, Gates did not completely dismiss the Iranian statements but expressed skepticism about Tehran's sincerity.

"The reality is that they have done nothing to reassure the international community that they are prepared to . . . stop their progress toward making a nuclear weapon," Gates said.

Other U.S. and European officials also have voiced doubts, calling Iran's negotiating tactics a bid to buy time while it continues to attempt to build a nuclear arsenal.

"If it's not more than we heard yesterday, then I have to say, unfortunately, this is not a new transparency," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Saturday in Munich.

The United States has been pressing members of the U.N. Security Council to impose harsher sanctions against Iran, which maintains that its nuclear program is peaceful, but has met resistance from Russia and especially China.

Gates said he hopes that China will change its mind. "I think there will still be an effort to engage with China. I would say I personally don't believe the door is closed," he said.

Political directors of the six nations negotiating with Iran held a conference call Friday to discuss their next steps, but diplomats reported that the group is divided over whether and how to seek new sanctions.

"If in the future, hypothetically, if new sanctions are imposed, we are sure that sanctions should be limited to nonproliferation only and not be expanded to cultural, humanitarian, economic parts of Iranian activity," Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said at the Munich conference.

U.S. officials have floated the idea of targeting Iran's central bank as part of the new sanctions.

Staff writer Glenn Kessler contributed to this report from Washington.

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