Reuters: Major world powers struck what a senior U.S. official called a “substantial agreement” on Thursday on a package of incentives for Iran to halt sensitive nuclear fuel work as well as penalties if it did not.
By Mark Heinrich
VIENNA (Reuters) – Major world powers struck what a senior U.S. official called a “substantial agreement” on Thursday on a package of incentives for Iran to halt sensitive nuclear fuel work as well as penalties if it did not.
Earlier, Iran rejected a U.S. condition for direct talks on its nuclear programme, which the West fears includes plans to build atomic weapons. Iran says its nuclear programme is solely for power generation.
The accord was reached at a Vienna meeting of foreign ministers from the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China — all permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — as well as Germany and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
In Washington, the U.S. official said there was agreement with Germany, France and Britain over the package of “carrots and sticks” and that Russia and China — in the past reluctant to support punitive measures — also appeared to be on board.
“We have substantial agreement with the Russians and the Chinese. We are agreed certainly on the need for moving forward in the (U.N.) Security Council if Iran doesn’t respond to the offer,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Officials at the Vienna meeting said no details would be issued before the package was presented to Iran, which has said its programme to enrich uranium — a key ingredient in civilian nuclear power plants and atomic bombs — was non-negotiable.
U.S. President George W. Bush warned Iran that if it refused to stop enrichment, a process that can yield bomb-grade material, its case would go to the U.N. Security Council.
“If that is what they decide to do, the next step is for our coalition partners to go to the Security Council,” said Bush.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Bush had spoken to Russian and Chinese leaders and that the conversations had been positive.
Casey said the United States was willing to “go the extra mile” while Iran was using every excuse it could find not to move forward with discussions. “Iran clearly has a choice that it is going to have to make,” he said.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Tehran was open to talks with Washington, which severed ties in 1980, but rejected a U.S. demand it stop enriching uranium first.
“We will not give up our nation’s natural right (to enrichment), we will not hold talks over it. But we are ready to hold talks over mutual concerns,” he said in Tehran.
The White House urged Iran to take several days to examine the U.S. policy shift and said Washington would reserve judgement until then on Tehran’s response.
One senior U.S. official said Tehran had only weeks to accept the overture before Western allies would start pursuing U.N. sanctions.
An EU diplomat at the Vienna meeting said the quick Iranian rebuff on talks did not look final. “We have not presented the package to them yet and nothing they’ve said so far seems to rule out taking up this opportunity,” he said.
Crude oil prices fell below $71 a barrel, extending a slide sparked by the U.S. offer of dialogue that seemed to ease market fears of the Iran dispute leading to an oil supply crunch.
The Islamic Republic says it wants to purify uranium only to run civilian atomic power plants. But, enriched to a higher level, uranium is the key ingredient in detonating bombs.
Defying U.N. Security Council calls for it to stop seeking enrichment technology, Tehran said in April it had produced its first batch of low-enriched uranium.
Before the Vienna meeting, diplomats said the incentives were expected to encompass a light-water nuclear reactor and an assured foreign supply of atomic fuel for Iran so Tehran would not need to enrich uranium itself.
Sanctions could entail visa bans and a freeze on assets of senior Iranian officials before resorting to trade measures, they said.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who announced the offer of talks on Wednesday, said a last-resort military option, should talks or sanctions prove futile, remained on the table.
But Washington, angling for firm Russian support, had accepted language in a proposed Security Council resolution to underpin the offer that would rule out an immediate threat of military strikes on Tehran, U.S. and European officials said.
Russia, the Council power with the most leverage on Iran due to hefty trade relations, said the U.S. gesture presented “a real chance” to ease the crisis and urged Tehran to grasp it.
(Additional reporting by Carol Giacomo in Vienna, Edmund Blair in Tehran and Matt Spetalnick in Washington)