VIENNA, Austria (AP) – World powers converged on Vienna Thursday for talks on how to resolve the Iran nuclear crisis, strengthened by a U.S. decision to join in direct talks with Tehran if it agrees to suspend uranium enrichment.
Ahead of the meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Washington and international partners were close to a deal that would offer Iran economic incentives if it gives up nuclear activities that could produce a bomb, and penalties if it does not.
“We are agreed with our European partners on the essential elements of a package containing both benefits, if Iran makes the right choice, and costs, if it does not,” Rice said Wednesday before leaving Washington for Vienna.
But Iran remained defiant. Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki welcomed the prospect of direct talks with Washington, but said: “Iran is interested in continuing” uranium enrichment.
The United States and other countries accuse Tehran of wanting the technology to make weapons-grade uranium for the core of warheads. Iran denies that, saying it only wants to generate power.
Iran’s refusal to freeze enrichment could scuttle any chance of negotiations. Still, the Vienna talks, grouping the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, got a boost Wednesday from the U.S. announcement, signaling a major shift from the previous decades-long U.S. policy of avoiding formal high-level contact with Tehran.
There had been mounting pressure from European allies, and the move was also linked to U.S. expectations that Russia and China would support sanctions or other harsh measures if new talks fail to persuade Iran to permanently abandon nuclear efforts that the West fears could lead to a bomb, European diplomats said.
“The United States is going to take a leadership position in solving this issue,” U.S. President George W. Bush said of the decision to engage Tehran if it meets the conditions on enrichment.
“We’re prepared to go either way,” U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said before leaving for talks in Europe on Iran with counterparts or their deputies from Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.
The offer to talk should strip Iran and some U.S. partners of the argument that the hardline U.S. stance was an obstacle, or that Washington was not willing to try every means to resolve the impasse peacefully, U.S. officials said.
“This is the last excuse, in some sense,” Rice said. The United States has had no diplomatic ties with Iran and few contacts at all with its government since Islamic radicals took over the U.S. Embassy in 1979 and held diplomats there for more than a year. Rice was to meet with Foreign Ministry officials from the other permanent U.N. Security Council members on Thursday in Vienna to finalize a package of economic incentives and threats to be presented to Tehran. Germany and EU representative Javier Solana also will attend.
Formal negotiations are scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. (1600GMT) and end four hours later. Diplomats in Vienna said that any offer to Iran would be made by Britain, France and Germany, the three EU nations that broke off previous talks with Tehran in August over its decision to resume its enrichment program. The Americans, along with Russia and China, would then join the negotiations, diplomats said on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the talks.
Such an approach, along with a package of perks and penalties, is in some ways similar to the now stalled talks with North Korea, the world’s other main proliferation threat.
Rice said the United States was not offering full diplomatic relations with Iran and would not swear off ever using military action to stop what the U.S. contends is a rogue program to build a nuclear weapon. “This is not a grand bargain,” Rice said. “What we’re talking about here is an effort to enhance the chances for a successful negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear problem.”
Rice would not directly answer questions about whether Russia and China were now committed to tough measures if the U.S. overture doesn’t work. She spoke of “tactical differences” and said, “I think you can be sure that our friends and our partners understand the importance of the step and the importance that the Iranians must now see of making a choice and making that choice clearly.”
In Brussels, Belgium, Solana described the U.S. initiative as “the strongest and most positive signal of our common wish to reach an agreement with Iran.”
British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said, “The European side’s goal is to present a serious and substantial offer of cooperation, which demonstrates to Iran the benefits that would flow from compliance … rather than the further isolation which would result from their failure to do so.”
The U.S. offer is conditioned on Iran suspending its enrichment of uranium and related activities and allowing inspections to prove it. European nations and the Security Council have demanded the same thing, but Iran has refused to comply.
Uranium enrichment can lead either to a bomb or to nuclear power production. Iran, which says it wants only to generate power, has so far insisted that it won’t take any deal that involves giving up that technology.