New York Times: A senior Iranian cleric vowed today that his country would never talk with the United States over Tehran’s nuclear program, as an American official underscored the need for Iran to respond next Wednesday to a package of incentives offered by major powers in exchange for a suspension of uranium enrichment. The New York Times
By HELENE COOPER and JOHN O’NEIL
A senior Iranian cleric vowed today that his country would never talk with the United States over Tehran’s nuclear program, as an American official underscored the need for Iran to respond next Wednesday to a package of incentives offered by major powers in exchange for a suspension of uranium enrichment.
The pronouncement by the cleric, Ahmad Khatami, at Friday prayers in Tehran today marked a 180-degree shift from a month ago, when Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, wrote to President Bush calling for the opening of a dialogue.
In fact, European leaders had pressed for years for the United States to join earlier rounds of talks with Iran, and when the Bush administration decided in late May to offer to join any new discussions, the move was seen as a major concession and a prime inducement for Tehran.
On Tuesday, however, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said he saw “no use” in talking with the United States.
And today, Mr. Khatami went further, declaring that “with regards to our nuclear case, we have nothing to do with the U.S. and principally, our officials will have no talks with the U.S.,” according to the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency.
“Who is the U.S., that pokes its nose into Iran’s nuclear affairs?” he asked. “Should anybody that has power and bullies get to be present on all scenes?”
Mr. Khatami said that Iran was willing to talk with European leaders if they recognized Iran’s right to pursue nuclear power.
“If Europeans really intend to solve the issue, they should recognize our absolute rights,” he said. “Then, one can sit down at the table to negotiate the executive methods, the international treaties as well as controls and supervision.”
In Brussels today, Undersecretary of State Nicholas R. Burns rejected the idea of giving Tehran any more time, beyond a meeting scheduled for July 5 between Iranian officials and the European Union’s foreign minister, Javier Solana.
Diplomats from the world’s eight major industrial nations declared at a meeting in Moscow on Thursday that they expected to receive a “clear and substantive” response from Iran by then.
The statement from the foreign ministers of the Group of 8 countries was the first reference to an explicit deadline for Iran to respond formally. “We are disappointed in the absence of an official Iranian response to this positive proposal,” their statement said.
It is unclear, however, whether Iran will meet the deadline. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said that his government will not respond until late August, a position underscored by Iran’s foreign minister, Manoucher Mottaki, on Thursday.
After receiving Iran’s response, foreign ministers from the six major powers that made the nuclear offer five members of the Group of 8, Russia, Britain, France, Germany and the United States, plus China will meet on July 12 somewhere in Europe, perhaps in Paris. They are to consider whether the Iranian response can lead to an agreement, and whether to seek economic sanctions against Iran, according to a senior Bush administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to interfere with the diplomatic process.
A spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry a issued a statement on Thursday echoing that of the Group of 8 and calling on Iran to respond “as soon as possible,” without mentioning a date.
The leaders of the Group of 8 countries the other three are Canada, Italy and Japan will meet in St. Petersburg, Russia, on July 15. The group’s meetings are usually rather staid, ending with bland communiqués and news conferences where all parties pretend they are one big, happy family. Thursday’s session was different.
Officials forgot to turn off the audio feed from the luncheon meeting, so reporters were able to hear parts of the closed discussion, including bickering between the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, often over arcane points in the statement.
At one point, the two squabbled about Russia’s desire to include wording about “urgent methods” to “provide security for diplomats” in light of the killing of five Russian Embassy staff members in Iraq.
Ms. Rice balked, saying that such wording would imply that urgent measures were not already being taken to protect Iraqis and American soldiers.
“You know, on a fairly daily basis we lose soldiers, and I think it would be offensive to suggest that these efforts are not being made,” she said.
Mr. Lavrov replied that the sentence was not intended as criticism. “I don’t believe security is fine in Iraq, and I don’t believe in particular that security at foreign missions is O.K.,” he said. “If you feel uncomfortable about it, maybe we should make it shorter.”
Eventually they agreed that the text would simply condemn the killing of the Russians and add that “this tragic event underlines the importance of improving security for all in Iraq.”
No sooner was that compromise reached, than Ms. Rice and Mr. Lavrov were at odds again, this time over Mr. Lavrov’s proposal that the statement include something about the need for the rest of the world to be more involved in the Iraqi political process. Ms. Rice immediately took exception.
“To say the international community is to be more involved in the political process seems to me rather odd, given that they have a democratic elective process,” she said.
“I did not suggest this,” Mr. Lavrov replied. “What I did say was not involvement in the political process but the involvement of the international community in support of the political process.”
“What does that mean?” Ms. Rice asked.
There was a long pause. Then, from Mr. Lavrov: “I think you understand.”
Ms. Rice: “No, I don’t.”
The sparring continued after the lunch and into a news conference. “Condoleezza Rice said that she first came to the Soviet Union in 1979 and she has noticed seen a change in the country,” Mr. Lavrov piped up, in answer to an unrelated question from a journalist. “I also first visited the U.S.A. in 1979, and I have been taking note of changes, many of which we strive to discuss with our American counterparts.”
Ms. Rice fumed for a few minutes while the discussion went on to other matters. The next time she was asked a question about whether she thought Russia had resorted to energy blackmail against Europe, she detoured. “Sergey, when did you go and where did you go in the United States in 1979, that you saw so much change?” she asked.
“New York,” Mr. Lavrov replied.
“Oh, New York,” Ms. Rice repeated, smirking. “Now I understand.”
Since Iran received the nuclear proposal, Iranian officials have continued to say that Iran will never give up its right to pursue nuclear enrichment, but they have also described the proposal as “positive.”
What happens after the Iranians do respond remains unclear. Russia and China have resisted the idea of hauling Iran before the United Nations Security Council for sanctions, a position pushed by the United States and Britain, with France and Germany somewhere in between.
In order to get Moscow on board, the United States agreed to not include mention of economic sanctions in the written part of the incentives package offered to Iran.
Bush officials continue to express optimism that if Iran turns down the package, Russia will sign on to sanctions, but the Russians continue to send mixed signals.
Speaking to foreign diplomats on Tuesday, President Vladimir V. Putin said, “I repeat once again that we have no intention of joining in any kinds of ultimatums that only drive the situation into a dead end and deal a blow to the U.N. Security Council’s authority.”
At the meeting on Thursday, Russian officials pointedly put copies of the text of that speech on the table for journalists.
Helene Cooper reported from Moscow for this article, and John O’Neil reported from New York.