EU and Iranian negotiators optimistic, plan new meeting on nuclear impasse

Sunday, September 10th 2006, 10:34 am
By: News On 6

VIENNA, Austria (AP) _ Iranian and European Union negotiators said Sunday they made progress toward solving the impasse over Tehran's refusal to meet U.N Security Council demands that it freeze uranium enrichment, which can be used to make nuclear weapons.

The talks in Vienna, which began Saturday, had been given little chance after months of building crisis over enrichment, exacerbated by Tehran's defiance of a U.N. deadline to freeze such activities and a U.S.-led push for Security Council sanctions.

But both sides spoke positively of the results and said they would meet again in the coming days.

Javier Solana, the senior EU foreign policy official, said ``the meeting was worth it,'' while chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani told reporters that ``many of the misunderstandings were removed.''

``We have reached a common point of view on a number of issues,'' he said.

Both said they would meet next week without disclosing a day or venue. Clarifying their comments later, Solana spokeswoman Cristina Gallach said the two had meant to say they would meet sometime in the week starting Monday.

With Solana scheduled to travel to Africa on Monday, however, it was unlikely that the talks would resume before Thursday or Friday.

The meeting had been billed as possibly the last chance for Iran to avoid penalties for rejecting the U.N. Security Council's demand that it stop enriching uranium by Aug. 31.

Iran says it wants to develop an enrichment program to generate power. But there are growing concerns it seeks the technology to enrich uranium to weapons-grade for the core of warheads.

The talks were focused on seeking common ground for negotiations between six world powers and Iran over its nuclear defiance. While the five permanent Security Council members _ the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia _ along with Germany have demanded that Iran fully freeze enrichment as a condition for further negotiations, Tehran has steadfastly refused to do so.

The six powers agreed on a package of economic and political rewards in June to be offered to Tehran, but only if it stops enrichment before the start of such negotiations, meant to achieve a long-term enrichment moratorium.

But the international alliance also warned of punishments, including U.N. sanctions, if Tehran does not halt enrichment.

Iran's package of counterproposals, made Aug. 22, has not been fully disclosed but was initially dismissed as inadequate by leaders of the six-nation alliance, primarily because it made no mention of a pre-negotiation enrichment freeze as those six countries demanded.

Still, both men indicated the gap had been narrowed.

And European officials have suggested that at least some of the six nations were ready to listen if Iran committed itself to an enrichment freeze soon after the start of negotiations instead of as a condition for such talks. The officials, who spoke to The Associated Press on Saturday, requested anonymity in exchange for sharing confidential information.

Such readiness would be a blow to U.S.-led attempts to hold fast to the demand that Iran freeze enrichment before any talks _ or face the prospect of Security Council sanctions.

One of the officials said Solana discussed the issue with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice before going into the weekend talks, but declined to offer details.

U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said Friday that Washington expected the Security Council to start discussing a draft on sanctions as early as next week, unless Tehran does a last-minute turn and agrees to halt enrichment.

But there might be opposition to that. Russia and China have resisted a quick move to sanctions even though they agree to them as the ultimate punishment.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao urged the international community not to threaten Iran with economic and other sanctions to resolve the standoff.

Wen said Saturday after an EU summit in Finland that diplomacy is a ``long process'' and added that ``to mount pressure or impose sanctions will not necessarily bring about a peaceful solution'' to the controversy over Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

And French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy last week appeared to suggest that the demand to stop enrichment before talks was negotiable, saying: ``The question is to know at what moment this suspension takes place compared to negotiations.''

He later appeared to reverse himself, saying in separate comments that ``suspension ... is an absolute prerequisite for restoring trust and resuming negotiations.''

A European diplomat told AP such vacillation appeared to reflect that _ although Britain, France and Germany formally represent the European Union _ a sizable number of countries within the 25-member EU oppose a quick move to sanctions.