HASHTGERD, Iran, (AP) – President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned Wednesday that sanctions will not stop Iran from enriching uranium after a European negotiator conceded “endless hours” of talks had made little progress and suggested the dispute could wind up at the U.N. soon.
The talks had been seen as a last-ditch attempt to avoid a full-blown confrontation between Iran and the U.N. Security Council after Tehran ignored an Aug. 31 deadline to suspend enrichment — a key step toward making nuclear weapons — or face punishment.
The latest comments — and the view of senior U.N. diplomats who told The Associated Press on Tuesday that nearly two years of intermittent negotiations had failed — suggested an emerging consensus that the time has finally come to consider Security Council sanctions.
Iran maintains its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes and does not violate international law. Its refusal to give up enrichment compounds the failure of more than three years of U.N. inspections to banish suspicions that Tehran might have a secret weapons program. The conflict picked up steam after last year’s election of the hard-line Ahmadinejad, whose tough stance on the nuclear issue is wildly popular in Iran — even among moderates.
Javier Solana, the European official who has been negotiating with the Iranians, told the European Parliament on Wednesday that the Iranians had made “no commitment to suspend.” The dialogue with the Iranians “cannot last forever” and it was up to Tehran “to decide whether its time has come to end,” he said.
Solana said his talks had found “common ground” on some issues “but we have not agreed in what is the key point, which is the question of suspension of activities before the start of the negotiations.” He suggested that if the talks ended, the standoff should be moved to the Security Council.
In a speech shortly afterward, Ahmadinejad warned that sanctions would not dissuade his country from pursuing nuclear technology, including the enrichment of uranium.
“You are mistaken if you assume that the Iranian nation will stop for even a moment from the path toward using nuclear energy, due to your nagging,” he told the West, speaking to a crowd of supporters outside Iran’s capital.
“For 27 years they haven’t allowed us to use technologies that they possess,” Ahmadinejad added. “This nation is powerful and won’t give in to one iota of coercion.”
In an apparent response to Solana, the Iranian president said his nation favored continued negotiations.
“We are for talks. We can talk with each other and remove ambiguities. We have logic. We want talks to continue,” he said.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and foreign ministers from five other major powers were expected to meet, possibly Friday in London, to discuss the situation.
Diplomats said the Security Council could meet as early as Monday to start work on a resolution imposing the first of a series of sanctions meant to make Iran roll back its program.
Iran was initially referred to the Security Council in February by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, which said Tehran’s suspicious activities represented breaches of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The Vienna-based agency also said it could not be sure Iran was not trying to make weapons.
The United States insisted that Tehran halt enrichment as a precondition for further talks on its nuclear program, but Iran ignored the Aug. 31 deadline set by the Security Council.
The Americans then agreed to let Solana hold more talks with the Iranians after Russia, China and France spoke out against a rush to sanctions.
At first, both Solana and Iran’s top negotiator, Ali Larijani, had signaled progress in the talks.
On Tuesday, however, diplomats said Larijani told Solana that the hard-line Iranian leadership had rejected even a limited enrichment freeze.
One diplomat said Western council members — the United States, Britain and France — favor an embargo on sales of nuclear or missile technology to Tehran as a first sanctions step. That would be followed by other sanctions, including travel bans on Iranian officials and the freezing of their assets.
Iran has so far shown little concern about the prospect of such sanctions — perhaps because such limited sanctions would not greatly hurt the country overall.
Russia and China, both veto-wielding council members, traditionally oppose sanctions, and the United States could still face a tough fight getting them to agree to any truly punitive measures.
U.S. officials have said they intend to start with trying for relatively lower-level punishments as a way to persuade Russia and China to sign on.
China’s U.N. Ambassador Wang Guangya, asked whether Beijing would support possible sanctions if Iran doesn’t suspend uranium enrichment, said Wednesday that over the last few weeks “there has been some progress” in the Solana-Larijani talks so the door isn’t completely shut.
“But I do hope that diplomatic means is still the best way to achieve a solution on this Iranian nuclear issue,” he said.
Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said he hadn’t heard Solana’s comments, but if Solana was saying that Iran now had a choice of whether to suspend enrichment or face sanctions “it will be a very sad moment.”
“We were very supportive of Mr. Solana’s efforts and still are if he intends to continue those efforts. Of course, it was our hope that those efforts would be successful and things will be resolved diplomatically,” Churkin said. “We do not want any extra work load here in the Security Council anyway, and of course, it’s a very important matter and we are hoping Mr. Solana will be successful.”
U.S. Ambassador John Bolton, asked about the possibility of the U.N. Security Council discussing sanctions against Iran, said: “We haven’t discussed sanctions here in New York for weeks, many weeks, lots of weeks. But as soon as I’m instructed, I’m prepared to begin as soon as the cable comes in.”