World powers await Iranian response to offer to end nuclear impasse

Iran nuclear challengeBRUSSELS, July 5, 2006 (AFP) – The EU’s top diplomat and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator hold potentially pivotal talks here Wednesday on whether Tehran might be prepared to curb its nuclear ambitions.

The talks between EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and negotiator Ali Larijani are expected to explore whether Iran is ready to accept a package of economic and political incentives in exchange for suspending uranium enrichment.

Some in the West fear that the Islamic republic is trying to covertly develop nuclear weapons under the guise of a civilian atomic programme, but the government in Tehran maintains that it only wants to generate electricity.

The meeting in Brussels, scheduled to begin at 5:00 pm (1500 GMT), comes almost a month to the day after Solana delivered the nuclear offer, drawn up by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany.

It is a diplomatic route chosen after the United States and its allies struggled to convince China and Russia to boost the powers of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) after Iran defied the UN’s nuclear watchdog.

Amid increasingly heated rhetoric, Solana, who will hold talks with officials from the six world powers before and after meeting Larijani, expects the meeting to provide a first clear sign about Iran’s intentions.

"We have to make sure that the Iranians have clearly understood what we are offering them, and that they get answers if they have questions," his spokeswoman, Cristina Gallach, said Tuesday.

"The clearer their response is, the quicker we will be able to go toward negotiations," she said, but added that any substantial talks at the level of experts would be unlikely before September.

That could come as bad news for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had hoped to announce the start of negotiations at a meeting of the Group of Eight industrial powers in Saint Petersburg next week.

Iran is unlikely to accept being bullied into meeting any deadline.

Larijani was quoted Tuesday as saying that his government might be ready to respond to the offer in early August, while Iran’s hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has set August 22 as a date.

US President George W. Bush, who refuses to rule out military action, wants a quicker answer.

Under the offer, the six powers affirm Iran’s right to develop nuclear energy, support its building of light water reactors and provide for enrichment to take place in Russia.

It would see Tehran’s access to international markets and capital improved and give backing for it to join the World Trade Organisation, among other incentives.

In return, Iran would suspend all enrichment-related activities and accept wider IAEA inspections, according to a text shown to AFP.

The sticking point is that the Islamic republic considers enrichment to be a non-negotiable "red line." Indeed, Larijani said Monday that the condition of suspension "is not a reasonable proposal".