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Senior Iranian says EU talks 'step in the right direction'

Updated:
VIENNA, Austria (AP) _ A senior Iranian envoy on Thursday called contacts between Tehran and the European Union a ``step in the right direction'' in resolving the standoff over his country's refusal to freeze uranium enrichment and accused the U.S. of trying to sabotage the talks.

Ali Ashgar Soltanieh spoke as senior EU and Iranian representatives prepared for a new round of talks later in the day in Paris on the nuclear impasse.

Only ``the continuation of dialogue and negotiations free from any kind of threat, pressure or any preconditions can pave the way'' to a negotiated solution, Soltanieh told a meeting of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency's 35-nation board.

Also Thursday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the nuclear standoff can be solved through dialogue, while calling for unspecified ``new conditions'' in negotiations.

Ahmedinejad, on a stopover in Dakar, Senegal, en route to Cuba for a summit of the Nonaligned Movement, said the debate over enrichment could be solved peacefully.

``We're partisans of dialogue and negotiation. We believe that we can resolve our problems in a space of dialogue and justice _ together,'' he told reporters.

``I must announce, we're available, we're ready for new conditions'' in talks, he said without elaborating. Ahmadinejad spoke in Farsi, with his comments interpreted into French.

Soltanieh said talks up to now have been positive, ``even though the U.S. poisoned the positive environment'' before the first EU-Iran meeting through ``unfounded allegations'' suggesting Iran was trying to make nuclear weapons.

He dismissed U.S. suggestions that Washington's push for U.N. sanctions against Iran was part of the diplomatic process, saying the Americans had also described their ``unilateral military invasion in Iraq as 'multinational democracy.'''

Both sides described as positive talks that ended Sunday between EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Ali Larijani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator. Officials in delegations familiar with the outcome of their talks said Larijani had suggested his country was ready to consider an enrichment freeze for up to two months.

But they later said the Iranian suggestion fell short of demands by the five permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany that Iran impose the freeze before negotiations begin on resolving the nuclear standoff. The six countries are leading the push to persuade Iran to stop enrichment.

In a possible indication of snags in their talks, Solana and Larijani on Wednesday abruptly postponed plans to attend the meeting in Paris, downgrading it to the level of their aids. There was no official explanation for the decision.

But a European official who requested anonymity in exchange for divulging confidential information told the AP that there was ``nothing sinister'' about the move. ``There are details to be worked on and that's best done at the senior expert level,'' the official said.

Asked about enrichment, Soltanieh told reporters: ``such a matter had not been discussed.'' But a senior diplomat familiar with the talks told The Associated Press the subject had surfaced during two rounds of talks between Solana and Larijani.

Soltanieh said negotiations were going well. ``Everything is on the right track,'' he said.

Iran insists it has a right to develop its enrichment program as a way to generate electricity, but there is increased concern it wants to make weapons-grade uranium for nuclear warheads. The U.S. has called for swift economic and political sanctions against Tehran.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan also suggested that Iran had raised the possibility of suspending enrichment. ``They are now saying that let's negotiate, so suspension will be on the agenda, and may be possible during the negotiations,'' he told reporters in New York.

Reflecting different interpretations on the progress of talks, key European nations urged Iran to negotiate, while Washington said the time had come to punish Tehran with U.N. sanctions.

In moderate language, Britain, France and Germany only alluded to the threat of Security Council sanctions. The United States, in contrast, said it was now up to the council ``to back international diplomacy with sanctions.''

The three European nations, along with Russia, China and the United States, are offering Iran economic and political rewards if it agrees to consider a long-term moratorium on enrichment and commits to an enrichment freeze before talks to discuss details of their package.

Underscoring differences over how to deal with Tehran, the six gave up their attempts to join together in criticizing Iran's nuclear defiance at the IAEA meeting after China and Russia refused to endorse U.S.-backed tough language, diplomats said.

In Berlin, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao reiterated his opposition to imposing sanctions against Iran, saying a solution could still be reached through negotiations.

``Our goal is to find a solution to the Iranian nuclear problem, but sanctions do not necessarily lead to this goal, they can also achieve the opposite,'' Wen said through a translator after a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
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