Tehran ready for ‘serious’ nuclear talks

Ali LarijaniTEHRAN (Reuters) — Iran handed over its formal response on Tuesday to a nuclear incentives offer from major powers and said it contained ideas that would allow serious talks about its standoff with the West to start immediately.

But Tehran gave no sign of heeding a key United Nations Security Council demand that it freeze uranium enrichment before the end of this month or face the prospect of sanctions.

Iran’s response was “extensive and therefore requires a detailed and careful analysis,” European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said in a statement, but gave no details of the Iranian proposals.

Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani delivered the reply to the incentives package, handed to Iran almost three months ago, at a meeting with foreign envoys representing the six co-sponsors of the offer in Tehran.

“Although there is no justification for the other parties’ illegal move to refer Iran’s case to the Security Council,… the answer was prepared … to pave the way for fair talks,” Larijani said.

“Iran  is  prepared  to hold  serious  talks from August 23,” he was quoted by Iran’s student news agency ISNA as saying.

He said Iran was ready to play a “constructive” role regarding all issues in the package. One European diplomat said: “It is a comprehensive answer.

The Iranian side said they would welcome a continuation of negotiations.” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said US President George W. Bush had yet to examine the Iranian response.

The world’s fourth largest oil exporter, Iran says it will not abandon what it calls its right to enrich uranium for use in nuclear power stations. Western countries fear Iran wants to master enrichment to give it the ability to make atomic bombs.

The UN Security Council — frustrated with Iran’s slow response to the incentives offer made by Britain, Germany, France, China, the United States and Russia in June — has given it to August 31 to freeze enrichment or face possible sanctions.

Iran has called the deadline illegal and worthless.

The European diplomat, who was not at the meeting with Larijani but was citing an initial read out, said Iran had again ruled out freezing enrichment as a precondition to talks “but indicated that it might be open to accept suspension in the course of negotiations.

Other diplomats had no immediate comment on Iran’s reply and declined to confirm that Larijani had indicated some flexibility on enrichment.

Rice studying reply

The US State Department declined any immediate comment on Iran’s response until full details were known but an official said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had returned from her vacation to examine Tehran’s reply.

US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton, said Washington was prepared to move quickly on a resolution seeking economic sanctions should Tehran reject the offer of incentives, but it was unclear how speedily other council members wanted to move.

“It really is a test for the council and we will see how it responds,” Bolton told reporters at UN headquarters.

The nuclear dispute erupted four years ago with revelations that Iran had been building an advanced atomic programme in secret for almost two decades.

The five Security Council permanent members plus Germany have offered Iran a range of economic, political and security incentives to halt work that could be used to make atomic bombs.

Iran had said its reply to the offer would be “multi-dimensional”, suggesting no simple “yes” or “no”.

Such tactics could lay bare divisions in the council where the United States, France and Britain back sanctions but Russia and China, both key trade partners of Iran, oppose them.

“If they said suspension [of enrichment] was negotiable, there would be pressure on [the six powers] to think about it,” said a Western diplomat.

Analysts say Iran is probably calculating that any move towards sanctions would start with modest steps, such as travel bans on officials or asset freezes, which it could tolerate because the country’s coffers are brimming with petrodollars.

Diplomats close to the UN nuclear watchdog said its inspectors were recently denied access to an underground site where Iran plans industrial-scale production of enriched uranium. Iran denied hindering access to the Natanz facility.

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