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EU to query Iran on lukewarm response to incentives package for restarting nuclear talks

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) _ The European Union said Friday it will prod Iran to clarify questions about its lukewarm response to a package of economic incentives designed to get the country to suspend uranium enrichment.

Tehran's response, contained in a 20-page document presented Tuesday, was judged insufficient by the United States and some of the five other major nations that drew up the package.

French President Jacques Chirac on Friday termed Iran's answer a ``little ambiguous, notably on whether it would eventually suspend sensitive activities.''

Iran didn't even mention the demand of the U.N. Security Council that it stop uranium enrichment by Aug. 31, moving it closer to possible economic and diplomatic sanctions.

Although there was no comment from Iran's government Friday, hardline cleric Ahmad Khatami said Iran was open to negotiations but would not bow to threats.

``The spirit of Iran's response is 'yes' to logical dialogue without precondition. No one can talk to Iran with the language of threats,'' Khatami said during his Friday sermon broadcast on Iran's state radio.

He urged Russia and China, which also joined in the incentives offer, not to ``fall in the trap of the U.S.''

Russian Vice Premier Sergei Ivanov said Friday that his government continued to pursue a political resolution of the dispute, saying that ``talk about sanctions is premature.''

Iran insists its nuclear program has the peaceful goal of generating electricity. But the United States and many of its European allies suspect Iran wants enriched uranium for use in nuclear bombs.

Javier Solana, the EU's foreign affairs chief, told reporters he would seek talks with the Iranian leaders to discuss their response. ``We have to work to understand it properly,'' he said.

Solana said he had held two telephone conversations since Tuesday with Ali Larijani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, but needed more talks ``before we can come out with a complete response'' to Iran's views.

Earlier, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Iran wants guarantees that it won't face U.N. sanctions before it agrees to restart negotiations over its nuclear program and the offer of economic incentives. He called that condition unacceptable.

``I have always said that we must begin negotiations without preconditions. ... That is why Iran must understand we cannot come to the negotiating table when every day new centrifuges are being constructed,'' Steinmeier told reporters.

After talks in Paris with Chirac, German Chancellor Angela Merkel complained that Iran's message had no reference to the demand for a suspension of uranium enrichment. ``But the door is open,'' she said. ``We want Iran to clearly recognize the offer it was presented.''

Germany and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council _ the United States, China, Britain, France and Russia _ drafted the incentives package in hopes of persuading Iran to return to negotiations on increasing international oversight of its nuclear program.

Steinmeier welcomed U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's plan to visit Iran in the coming days and said he hoped Annan would make it clear the international community expected Iran to come back to negotiations without conditions.

``I hope that the U.N. secretary-general can make that once again clear in Tehran,'' Steinmeier said.

In Tehran, Iranian lawmaker Hamid Reza Hajbabaei urged the West not miss an opportunity for talks, saying the imposition of sanctions would bolster Islamic hardliners and cause greater tension in the Middle East.

``America's adventurist policy in seeking sanctions against Iran simply is harmful to all. In Iran, it will even strengthen the voice of extremists who want Iran's withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and weaken the voice of moderates,'' he said.
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