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Iran Rebuffs Multilateral Atomic Offer, Demands Curbs on Penalties

Negotiators representing six major governments arrive in Baghdad on Wednesday to meet with Iranian counterparts. Tehran during the talks turned down a multilateral proposal calling on the government to halt production of higher-enriched uranium in return for certain incentives (AP Photo/Mohammed Ameen). Negotiators representing six major governments arrive in Baghdad on Wednesday to meet with Iranian counterparts. Tehran during the talks turned down a multilateral proposal calling on the government to halt production of higher-enriched uranium in return for certain incentives (AP Photo/Mohammed Ameen).

A multilateral call for Iran to end production of 20 percent-enriched uranium faced rejection on Thursday from Iranian diplomats, who instead offered measures including broader international scrutiny of their nation's atomic facilities in return for loosening economic penalties on its petroleum operations, the Associated Press reported (see GSN, May 23).

At a meeting launched on Wednesday in Baghdad, representatives of China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States offered to supply Iran with material for a medical reactor, peaceful atomic risk reduction assistance and nonmilitary aircraft components. Tehran says it needs to produce the 20 percent-enriched material for operating a medical reactor, but the United States and other nations worry the operation is a step toward production of weapon-grade material, which requires an enrichment level of roughly 90 percent. The Middle Eastern nation has maintained its nuclear efforts are aimed strictly toward civilian ends.

"Giving up 20 percent enrichment levels in return for plane spare parts is a joke," said Iranian issue specialist Hassan Abedini. "The package is unbalanced and therefore unacceptable" (Dareini/Jakes, Associated Press I/Yahoo!News, May 24).

The sides have agreed to convene a new, two-day meeting on June 18 in Moscow, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said on Thursday (Ali Akbar Dareini, Associated Press II/Google News, May 24).

The six negotiating nations were not ready to meet a central Iranian demand for curbs on multilateral and independent penalties, though they purportedly offered to forswear pursuing additional measures and to potentially place a hold on plans to bar European insurers from covering overseas deliveries of Iranian petroleum, Agence France-Presse reported (Simon Sturdee, Agence France-Presse I/Yahoo!News, May 24).

A member of the Iranian negotiating team said the governments have submitted no "proposal to reduce uranium enrichment from 20 percent to 5 percent and in return to ease sanctions imposed on Iran."

"Such [a] proposal could be accepted by Iran because it would be a clear international recognition that Iran has the right to obtain nuclear energy," the official, Talib Mahdi, told the Xinhua News Agency (Xinhua News Agency, May 24).

Still, Iranian government personnel said the multilateral demands exceed the bounds of a phased, "reciprocal" procedure the participating governments had endorsed at an April session in Istanbul, Turkey, the Christian Science Monitor reported.

"The response from the Iranian side is: 'What you are asking for is ... not what we agreed to in Istanbul,' " an Iranian envoy with ties to the dialogue said in reference to calls by the six nations for Tehran to close its underground Qum enrichment complex and to restrict refinement of uranium.

Concessions were supposed to be “reciprocal, simultaneous, and ... balanced” in their worth, but the six governments instead hinted at “consideration” of curbs to punitive measures “later,” the envoy said to the newspaper (Scott Peterson, Christian Science Monitor, May 24).

"We need the steps that both sides have to take to be clearly defined and there is no possibility of going back on them," AFP on Wednesday quoted an Iranian negotiating team member as saying. "For example, that they lift sanctions that they cannot then readopt two months later under a different pretext" (Simon Sturdee, Agence France-Presse II/Google News, May 23).

"We believe the reason (the powers) are not able to reach a result is America," Reuters quoted an Iranian diplomat as saying. "(They) came to Baghdad without a clear mandate so we think the atmosphere is difficult" (Quinn/Pawlak, Reuters I, May 24).

The specifics of Iran's own bargaining platform remained unclear, the New York Times reported.

Tehran put forward a "comprehensive proposal" containing five components, according to Iranian press reports. It incorporated atomic as well as area geopolitical matters, Iranian reporters said (Steven Erlanger, New York Times, May 24).

This week's exchange was aimed primarily at agreeing on plans for an additional meeting and potentially on a regular discussion site, government sources said in a Thursday Wall Street Journal report (Jay Solomon, Wall Street Journal, May 24).

The political stakes of the dialogue are high, according to the Journal. Failure to rein in Tehran's atomic activities could prompt an armed Israeli offensive against Iranian atomic sites, Tel Aviv has indicated (Solomon, Wall Street Journal).

The discussion process could accelerate in future meetings, a high-level U.S. government insider suggested.

"We are urgent about it, because every day we don't figure this out is a day they keep going forward with a nuclear program," AP quoted the source as saying. "And there are all kinds of assessments about how long it will take them to get there."

"We still think we have some time for diplomacy, but it's not indefinite," the insider added (Dareini/Jakes, Associated Press).

An Iranian government source, though, suggested "the basis for another round of negotiations doesn't exist yet," AFP reported.

Ashton "didn't say anything new" in a meeting early on Thursday with senior Iranian chief negotiator Saeed Jalili , the Iranian insider added. The six-nation gathering was initially scheduled to conclude on Wednesday but dragged well into the following day, government personnel said.

"A possible swap of uranium enriched by Iran for fuel isn't very interesting for us because we are already producing our own fuel," according to the Iranian source.

A high-level U.S. government insider late on Wednesday suggested the differences between the sides reflected the substantive nature of the issues under discussion.

"There have been some areas of common ground and there has been a fair amount of disagreement," the source said. "We have engaged in a lot of back and forth. Some of that has been difficult, but any negotiation that is worth its salt is difficult because you are getting down the issues that matter. We are the beginning of this process. We are not in the middle of it and we are certainly not at the end of it" (Sturdee, Agence France-Presse I).

The dialogue would require sustained effort and “these things can’t be resolved overnight," the Times on Thursday quoted Ashton spokesman Michael Mann as saying. A successful meeting in Baghdad would pave the way for “solid progress,” he added (Erlanger, New York Times).

Meanwhile, Iran might have deployed almost 350 additional uranium enrichment centrifuges at its Qum complex in the last three months, but the machines had yet to begin treating atomic material, Reuters on Thursday quoted two sources as saying.

Western international relations insiders said an International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards analysis anticipated for release on Friday is likely to verify Iran's preparation of new refinement machines. The assessment is not foreseen indicating a boost in uranium output, but any new machines would increase the site's manufacturing capacity, according to Reuters.

The Qum site is generating 20 percent-enriched uranium with two pairs of linked 174-centrifuge "cascades," and a third 348-machine set might soon be ready, the informants said.

"Unless the Iranians feed it (with low-enriched uranium) at the last minute, it is installed but not yet fed, so maybe not quite ready yet," one envoy stated.

Iran's Natanz facility also contains one of the cascade pairs, which the nation uses to expedite preparation of higher-enriched uranium but not to generate low-enriched material. Tehran has indicated it could stop manufacturing 20 percent-enriched uranium at Natanz upon launching the Qum site, but Western diplomatic officials presently doubt it has ceased the production at Natanz (Fredrik Dahl, Reuters II, May 24).

Elsewhere, British Foreign Secretary William Hague and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman addressed the Iranian nuclear standoff during a meeting on Tuesday.

"We had a positive, wide-ranging meeting," Hague said in remarks released on Wednesday by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

"In particular we discussed Iran and our shared determination to prevent Iran developing a nuclear weapon and the importance of Iran engaging meaningfully with the [P-5+1] in Baghdad to build confidence and help enable a peaceful resolution to the nuclear issue," he said, referring to the five permanent U.N. Security Council member nations and Germany (British Foreign and Commonwealth Office release, May 23).

Separately, Iran completed a daylong armed forces drill, AP quoted Iranian state media as saying on Wednesday.

The drill was intended to demonstrate the nation's preparedness to face "global arrogance," Iranian Brig. Gen. Ahmad-Reza Pourdastan said in reference to the United States. The armed forces also sought to bolster their capacities through the activity, the Islamic Republic News Agency quoted him as saying.

The event involved aircraft as well as recently introduced armaments, according to the official. It took place in Iran's Isfahan province, the location of various uranium operations (Associated Press III/Google News, May 23).

Note to our Readers

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