Reuters: Major powers have offered Iran preliminary talks on its nuclear work, on condition it limits uranium enrichment to current levels for six weeks in exchange for a freeze on moves towards harsher sanctions, diplomats say.
By Mark Heinrich
LONDON (Reuters) – Major powers have offered Iran preliminary talks on its nuclear work, on condition it limits uranium enrichment to current levels for six weeks in exchange for a freeze on moves towards harsher sanctions, diplomats say.
They said European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana conveyed the proposal during talks in Tehran last week in which he presented a revised batch of incentives from six powers for Iran to stop pursuing technology that could yield atomic bombs.
The Islamic Republic has repeatedly rejected the sextet's precondition of a full suspension of enrichment-related activity before negotiations to implement the incentives.
Iran has steadily expanded enrichment capacity to 3,600 centrifuge machines compared with 300 two years ago, and gained leverage from soaring oil prices, increasing the pressure on big powers to be more flexible on terms for talks.
Under the "freeze-for-freeze" proposal, Iran would not expand enrichment capacity by adding centrifuge machines for a six-week period, during which the powers would stop moves to sharpen the mild sanctions already in force, the diplomats said.
The interim period would enable "pre-negotiations" to agree parameters for formal negotiations to put the incentives into effect, once Iran has fully suspended enrichment, going beyond the hold-down on centrifuge expansion.
Formal negotiations are envisaged for up to about six months, during which an enrichment suspension would continue, suggested the diplomats, who asked not to be further identified due to political sensitivities.
The idea is not new but appears more time-specific than before, designed to make it more attractive to Iran after a similar suggestion for kick-starting negotiations mooted by Solana in talks with the Iranians last year went nowhere.
IRAN "READY TO NEGOTIATE"
Iran's foreign minister said on Thursday it had informed the powers — the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — that it was ready to negotiate and was studying their revised overture.
A senior Iranian nuclear official who was involved in talks with Solana told Reuters Iran's answer would not be a straight yes or no but that it would be "discussable".
He said Iran would review the package although "not the part about enrichment freeze".
"We are moving forward with our work," he said. "Each passing day we are more advanced in nuclear technology, it gives us an upper hand in talks."
Despite his remarks, a European diplomat said Iran had not rejected the approach and "is not so dismissive as before. They have told us they will look at it in detail. The idea of starting with a freeze at current levels is (out there)."
The six powers were exploring with Iran "imaginative ways for Iran to fulfill suspension requirements (of the U.N. Security Council) and to feel comfortable about it", the diplomat added.
In keeping with the more flexible approach, a change in the incentives package text from its 2006 predecessor said Iran could continue research and development (R&D) in nuclear energy "as confidence is gradually restored" in Iran's intentions.
This suggested R&D could go on even during an enrichment halt and set a longer-term timetable for resolving core issues.
Iran has signaled it is in no rush to respond. Analysts say it is skilled at diplomatic stalling tactics to gain time to press ahead with efforts to master enrichment technology.
As a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran insists it has the right to master the complete nuclear fuel cycle, including uranium enrichment, for peaceful purposes. It says it wants nuclear power only to generate electricity.
Western leaders suspect Iran has a covert agenda to refine uranium to the high level suitable for bombs, since it hid its program from the U.N. nuclear watchdog in the past and continues to restrict its scope for inspections.
(Editing by Andrew Roche)