Iran stops short of rejecting deal

Incentives offered over nuclear program

June 03, 2006|By ALISSA J. RUBIN | ALISSA J. RUBIN,LOS ANGELES TIMES

VIENNA, Austria -- Iranian political and religious leaders sounded defiant yesterday in the face of the accord between major world powers demanding that Iran suspend its nuclear program in exchange for a package of incentives but stopped short of saying they would reject the deal.

Much of what was said repeated past statements, and none of it addressed specifically the incentives and penalties agreed to here Thursday by permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said international pressure "would not bear fruit" and obliquely accused Israel of being behind the effort to censure Iran, in comments to the official Iranian news agency.

None of this surprised European diplomats, who said the Iranians are masters of brinkmanship, making their diplomatic moves at the last possible minute. The diplomats said it was crucial not to jump to conclusions about Tehran's position.

European officials have been negotiating intermittently for two years with Iran to seek a permanent halt to its uranium enrichment program. The talks broke off early this year when the Iranians restarted enrichment at their plant at Natanz.

In a major concession to its long-standing refusal to meet with Iran, the Bush administration agreed this week to join European negotiating efforts. On Thursday, Russia and China signed on as well to a deal designed to give Iran a choice between engagement with the world community if it gave up its uranium-enrichment-related activities and isolation if it did not.

The hope is that negotiations will restart with Iran, but it is far from clear that they will.

At the Friday prayers in Iran - which signal the stand of the country's powerful religious leaders, who shape certain aspects of Iranian politics - clerics slammed the U.S. but said almost nothing about the Thursday offer.

"The USA constitutes the largest danger on the international security," said leading cleric Ahmed Khatami at the Friday prayers. His other comments seemed designed to bolster Iranian confidence, reminding people of the country's resourcefulness in the face of the decades-long embargo by the U.S. and the ravages of the 1980-1988 war with Iraq.

"Iran was exposed during the past 27 years to an economic embargo, whose effect was great for Iran since the country was [trying to] develop in the science and technology fields. ... But Iran changed the crisis into an opportunity," he said, referring to Iran's efforts to foster homegrown scientific and engineering expertise.

As for threatening Iran with military action, a move the U.S. has stepped away from in recent comments, Khatami reminded worshipers that "Iran endured eight years of war which was imposed upon it" by Iraq. His comments were broadcast to Iranian satellite channels in Baghdad.

Western powers believe that Iran wants the capability to build a nuclear bomb, but Iran insists that it seeks to enrich uranium only to fuel civilian nuclear power plants.

The package of incentives will be offered to Tehran probably early next week by a delegation of European diplomats who may be joined by representatives of other permanent Security Council members, most likely Russia and China, diplomats said yesterday.

Details of the offer were not disclosed because diplomats said they wanted to present it first to Iran.

Alissa J. Rubin writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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