New York Times: International talks on Iran’s nuclear ambitions ended in deadlock on Saturday, despite the Bush administration’s decision to reverse policy and send a senior American official to the table for the first time.
The New York Times
By ELAINE SCIOLINO
Published: July 20, 2008
GENEVA — International talks on Iran’s nuclear ambitions ended in deadlock on Saturday, despite the Bush administration’s decision to reverse policy and send a senior American official to the table for the first time.
The presence of William J. Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs, represented one of the most important encounters between Iran and the United States since relations were severed after Iran’s seizure of the American Embassy in 1979. It came as part of a moment of rare unity among the negotiating partners — the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China — who pressed Iran to accept compromise.
But Iran responded with a written document that failed to address the key issue: international demands that it stop enriching uranium. And Iranian diplomats reiterated before the talks that they considered that issue non-negotiable.
Specifically, the world powers wanted Iran to accept a formula known as “freeze-for-freeze” to break the deadlock, under which Iran would not add to its nuclear program, and the United States and other powers would not seek new international sanctions for six weeks to pave the way for formal negotiations. The formula was originally offered to Iran last year and presented again to it last month as part of a new proposal ultimately to give Iran economic and political incentives if it stops producing enriched uranium.
But officials involved in Saturday’s negotiations said that when they repeatedly pressed the Iranians to say whether they could accept the idea, the question was evaded every time.
“We still didn’t get the answer we were looking for,” the European Union foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said in a news conference after several hours of talks, held in Geneva’s City Hall.
Mr. Solana reiterated an earlier deadline, given before the talks, that the Iranians had two weeks to formally respond to the proposal.
At the news conference, Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief negotiator, refused to answer whether Iran would accept a freeze, however temporary, of its uranium enrichment program, but called the negotiating process a “very beautiful endeavor” with a result that he hoped would eventually be “beautiful to behold.”
Mr. Burns did not speak privately with Mr. Jalili. But in a brief intervention in the morning meeting, he said that the United States was serious in its support for the six-power process and serious that Iran must suspend its production of enriched uranium, the State Department said.
He told his negotiating partners after the talks that the United States would push for new punitive sanctions at the United Nations Security Council in September, one participant in the meeting said.
Saturday’s meeting at Geneva’s Town Hall was arguably the most important public encounter between an Iranian and an American official in about 30 years.
There have been other authorized meetings. Madeleine K. Albright, as Secretary of State, for example, once sat at the same table with then Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi and other emissaries at the United Nations to discuss Afghanistan. Colin L. Powell, as secretary of state, once shook Mr. Kharrazi’s hand. American and Iranian officials have met episodically in Baghdad to discuss Iraq’s security.
But Saturday’s meeting was the highest-level meeting between the two countries during the Bush administration, which once branded Iran part of an “axis of evil” and has not ruled out military action against Iran because of its nuclear ambitions.
It comes as the Bush administration, in its final months, has told some of its closest allies that the United States was moving forward with a plan to establish an American diplomatic presence in Tehran for the first time since the rupture in bilateral relations.
But for some, the Americans have made a diplomatic gesture with Mr. Burns’s participation at a moment that is hard to understand. America’s negotiating partners, particularly Britain, had wanted an American presence when they traveled to Tehran last month to present an enhanced package of incentives. That moment, officials said, would have been both meaningful and more logical.
Instead, Mr. Burns came to the table at a time when the Iranians were giving their reply, and there had never been a strong signal that it was going to be different from the past.
Despite the shift in American willingness to talk, one point of policy clearly has not changed: the Bush administration wants to avoid the impression that it is negotiating with Iran before it suspends its production of enriched uranium, which can be used to make electricity or fuel bombs.
Even the subject of a joint photograph was one of dispute. The only photo accepted by the American side was one with all parties at the table. The Americans objected to the idea of a photo of Mr. Solana and Mr. Jalili at a joint news conference with Mr. Burns and the other participants standing behind them.
Complicating the diplomacy was that before Saturday’s talks began, the six powers were not united on a joint strategy on how to proceed. The American delegation had told its partners that Mr. Burns’s appearance was a one-time event and that Iran had two weeks to decide whether to accept the “freeze-for-freeze” idea.
Germany, Russia and China, by contrast, argued that there should be time to explore the negotiating track with Iran.
There were other disagreements among the six powers as well. Both France and Britain have argued that there should be a precise definition of what the Iranians would have to freeze to open the way to formal talks.
For example, there is no definition of whether Iran would simply have to keep its production of enriched uranium at current levels, or if it would also have to stop making components and spare parts for the centrifuges that enrich the uranium.
The American delegation rejected the idea of spending time worrying about definitions, insisting that it was more important to stick to the six-week deadline for initial discussions before Iran would stop enriching uranium and formal talks could begin.
But those disagreements evaporated during the talks with Iran. The six powers presented a united front in pushing the Iranians to give a clear answer on whether they were willing to make the good-faith gesture of halting new nuclear activity to pave the way for formal talks. Surprising to some, given Russia’s traditional support of Iran, the Russian negotiator, Sergei Kisliak, was particularly pointed in his questioning, saying that a way to avoid deepening the impasse had to be found, one participant said.
Iranian intransigence will make it more difficult politically for the Bush administration to move forward with a plan to put an American diplomatic presence in Iran.
Still, there is a reluctance to abandon talks with Iran. Last November, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that Iran was pursuing its nuclear program and that negotiations were out of the question. Last December, when Mr. Jalili assumed the role of chief nuclear negotiator, he announced at his first meeting with the other powers that any further discussion with Iran on its nuclear program was unnecessary.
Iran wants to continue its nuclear activities, but now, in a policy shift, wants to negotiate at the same time.