Rice doesn't rule out bargaining with Iran under time limit

Monday, September 11th 2006, 6:05 am
By: News On 6

HALIFAX, Nova Scotia (AP) _ Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice left the door open Monday for consideration of what may be a new offer from Iran to bargain with the West over the Iranians' disputed nuclear program.

Still, she predicted U.N. sanctions would follow ``if this does not work out.''

Iran has told diplomats it may be willing to shelve its uranium enrichment program temporarily, perhaps for two months, during negotiations with the United States and other world powers over the future and scope of a nuclear program that Iran insists is peaceful. The Bush administration accuses Iran of hiding ambitions to build nuclear weapons.

Rice said Iran has not put a formal offer on the table, but she did not reject the idea of beginning talks framed by a deadline.

``As to time limitations, I haven't heard any Iranian offer so I don't know what to make of that,'' Rice said. ``But the question is, are they prepared to suspend verifiably so that negotiations can begin.''

``Our clock would be running, too,'' she told reporters aboard her plane.

Rice was in Canada to thank Canadians for helping thousands of Americans stranded when their international flights were diverted on Sept. 11 five years ago.

As for Iran, the United States has led a drive to ask the United Nations Security Council to impose economic or other sanctions if the Iranians do not roll back their nuclear program. Iran missed an Aug. 31 deadline to stop uranium enrichment.

Uranium enrichment can lead either to fuel for nuclear power reactors or for weapons. International inspectors have been unable to determine whether Iran's program, begun in secret two decades ago, is intended only to produce electricity.

Iran has said it will not give up its right to the full range of nuclear technology and expertise, and has been wary of even a temporary pause in its development program.

The West, and the United States in particular, says a pause is essential to prevent Tehran from gaining ground toward a weapon if that is its hidden aim. Iran did suspend its uranium activities during two years of negotiations with European nations that fell apart last year without a deal.

The latest Western offer, with the added inducement of face-to-face talks with America, would give trade, aid and political benefits to Iran if it scaled back its program and answered the West's concerns. Iran would still be able to develop civilian nuclear power.

``Nobody is going to become accustomed to a nuclear-armed Iran, that's why we're on this course,'' Rice said.

She predicted, as other Bush administration figures have, that the Security Council would gradually ratchet up economic or political sanctions. The step-by-step approach is meant to offer Iran a way out as the pressure increases.

``I'm quite certain that you're going to see, if this does not work out, you're going to see sanctions and that those will be commensurate with Iranian behavior,'' Rice said.

The United States has had no diplomatic and few commercial or other ties with Iran since the 1979 storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

The diplomatic coalition against Iran has appeared ragged at times but has so far held together. The issue may finally be at a turning point if the Security Council takes up sanctions, a step that two of the council's veto-holding members have publicly said they oppose.

In the meantime there are signs that European allies are not eager to begin the sanctions discussion either, and may be seeking a way out. The European Union's foreign policy chief met with Iran's top nuclear negotiator this week in what was widely described as a last-ditch attempt to avert sanctions.

Surprise news that Iran was considering stopping enrichment activities for up to two months was revealed to The Associated Press shortly after those talks by diplomats familiar with the discussions.