Iran signals refusal of incentives plan

It offers `serious negotiations' while rejecting U.N. demand to stop uranium enrichment


VIENNA, Austria -- Iran offered to enter "serious negotiations" over its nuclear program yesterday, but appeared to reject the key U.N. Security Council demand that it suspend its uranium-enrichment program.

The apparent refusal of an incentives package offered by world powers sets up a potential confrontation with the Security Council, which has given Iran until Aug. 31 to respond to a resolution requiring it to stop enrichment.

John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said yesterday that if Iran refuses to halt enrichment, the United States will introduce a resolution through the Security Council calling for economic sanctions against Iran.

Iran's rejection, signaled by diplomats from several countries but not yet made public, came as no surprise to Western powers. For weeks, Iranian officials have said they were willing to negotiate many aspects of the nuclear program, but not halt enrichment altogether.

Iranian officials said the response, which ran to 23 pages in Farsi, offered a "new formula" for discussions. Ali Larijani, the Iranian government's chief nuclear negotiator, was quoted by the state-run television as telling diplomats from the world powers, with whom he met in Tehran, that Iran "is prepared as of Aug. 23rd to enter serious negotiations" with the countries that proposed the incentives package.

The reply came on the same day that former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami applied for a visa to speak at the National Cathedral's Center for Global Justice and Reconciliation in Washington next month. Widely viewed as a moderate and reformer, Khatami lost power last year in the elections that brought the more hard-line president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power.

The White House refused yesterday to discuss the Iranian proposal, saying it was up to the diplomats "to parse" it, said deputy press secretary Dana Perino.

Western countries suspect that Iran is attempting to gain the capability to make a nuclear bomb. Iran insists its program is for peaceful energy production.

Over the past year, Iran has taken an increasingly confrontational stand toward efforts by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog. More recently, it has resisted the U.N. Security Council's efforts to compel it to suspend its uranium enrichment and answer outstanding questions about its nuclear program, which it had operated in secret for 18 years. An Iranian resistance group revealed the program in 2002.

U.N. inspectors have reported Iran is now operating at least one cascade of 164 centrifuges, used to separate isotopes of uranium, in a pilot plant. Two more cascades are under construction. When uranium gas is spun at high speeds through a series of linked centrifuges, or cascades, it can be enriched enough to form fissile material.

Although Bolton and experts say that sanctions are the next step, early signals from other Security Council members suggest that Russia and China may be reluctant to move forward immediately. Even as Bolton talked about the economic sanctions, the Russian semi-official news agency Itar Tass put out a statement from a top parliament member saying that it was too early to consider sanctions.

Iran's negative answer, "is not yet a red line," said legislator Mikhail Margelov, the head of the Russian Federation Council's foreign affairs committee.

In their official statements, world powers took pains to avoid a quick response or dismiss the offer out of hand. They said that the Tehran government had replied "comprehensively" to the offer and they wanted to review it.

Iran's response was "extensive and therefore requires a detailed and careful analysis," said EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, in a statement. But Solana did not describe any specifics of Iran's response.

Larijani delivered the reply to the incentives package, meeting in Tehran with representatives of the six world powers involved in the offer: England, France, Germany, Russia, China and the United States, which was represented by Switzerland because it has no diplomatic relations with Iran.

The response comes just a little more than a week before Iran faces the same demand from the Security Council, which passed a resolution earlier this month with the legally binding requirement that Iran halt enrichment-related activities by Aug. 31 and undertake an array of "transparency measures" to reassure the public that its program is peaceful.

Alissa J. Rubin writes for the Los Angeles Times

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