Reuters: The clock is ticking for Iran to respond to an offer by major powers on its nuclear programme, but European diplomats say they are ready to wait a few more days beyond Saturday's informal deadline for an answer.
By Ingrid Melander
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The clock is ticking for Iran to respond to an offer by major powers on its nuclear programme, but European diplomats say they are ready to wait a few more days beyond Saturday's informal deadline for an answer.
Major powers asked Iran on July 19 to respond within two weeks to their offer to hold off from imposing more U.N. sanctions if Tehran froze expansion of its nuclear work. Iran has dismissed the idea of having a deadline to reply.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana — who leads nuclear talks with Iran for the six major powers — will not declare Iran has missed the deadline if it does not reply by Saturday, EU diplomats said, but the West wants a reply in the next week.
"One should not focus too much on Saturday," one EU official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "If it's not Saturday but next week, we'll not make a big fuss about it. What matters is to get a clear answer quickly, in the very coming days."
An EU diplomat said: "We are continuing our double approach of dialogue and pressure. If dialogue does not work, we could continue with additional pressure … at the U.N. or EU level."
The sources were not authorised to speak publicly about the delicate diplomacy.
The West accuses Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons under cover of a civilian power programme. Iran, the world's fourth largest oil producer, says its uranium enrichment drive is aimed purely at generating electricity.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was quoted by the state broadcaster as saying the nuclear issue was just an excuse for the country's enemies, who "want to force the Iranian nation to retreat."
"Whenever the enemies have failed against this nation they have tried to make excuses, but the Iranian nation will stand against them with its power," he said, without elaborating.
Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz, in Washington, said Iran was heading for a major breakthrough in its nuclear programme. "As soon as 2010 (Iran) will have the option to reach (uranium production) at military levels," he told an audience at the Washington Institute.
If Iran does not meet the deadline this weekend, another U.N. Security Council resolution with new sanctions will be needed this year, he added.
The United Nations has already imposed three rounds of sanctions on Iran. The stand-off goes back to the revelation in 2002 by an exiled opposition group of the existence of a uranium enrichment facility and heavy water plant in the country.
Iran's highest authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on Wednesday that the country would press ahead on its nuclear path.
The freeze-for-freeze offer by the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany is aimed at getting preliminary talks started.
Formal negotiations on the nuclear, trade and other incentives will not start before Iran suspends uranium enrichment, which has both civilian and military uses.
Iran has rejected suspension in the past and has given no indication so far that it is ready for a freeze.
Solana and Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili are unlikely to meet soon but could talk by telephone in the next few days to discuss Tehran's answer, another EU diplomat said.
"We've learned to be patient," the diplomat said.
The existing political and economic sanctions target Iran's state banks and include visa bans on officials and measures against companies seen as linked to the nuclear programme.
Diplomats say new U.N. sanctions on Iran are unlikely before September and may not happen this year, though Western states may take tougher measures of their own.
EU ambassadors agreed this week to a robust interpretation of the April U.N. sanctions resolution, instructing financial institutions to exercise "restraint" on export credits and allowing European navies to inspect all Iran-bound cargoes.
The move will be approved next week, EU diplomats said.
(Additional reporting by Paul Taylor, and Susan Cornwell in Washington)
(Editing by Paul Taylor and Tim Pearce)