Iran has pledged to end years of stonewalling and provide answers on past suspicious activities to the U.N. nuclear monitoring agency probing its atomic program, an official said Friday, in a move being seen as an attempt to evade new U.N. sanctions.
The offer, which the official said was made Thursday by top Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani to EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, falls short of the concession sought by the international community - a promise to freeze Iran's uranium enrichment activities.
Iran refuses to consider such a freeze but the U.N. Security Council insists on it, and past meetings between the two men have made little progress on resolving the deadlock.
Larijani's overture and the decision by Solana to treat the Iranian offer seriously reflected mutual recognition that the talks needed to advance on other issues or face the risk of collapse.
Still, U.N. and other officials, who demanded anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue, said any decision by Iran to fully cooperate on clearing up past activities would represent a major concession.
They told The Associated Press that such a move could help the International Atomic Energy Agency - the U.N. nuclear monitor - wrap up years of efforts to establish whether Tehran's past nuclear strivings were exclusively peaceful in nature.
``This is the first time they made such a serious offer'' without preconditions, said one of the officials, adding, without elaboration that Larijani had offered ``a short timetable'' for providing the answers sought by the IAEA.
The officials agreed that the move appeared to be an attempt by Iran to at least delay if not avoid the threat of new U.N. sanctions. An IAEA report last week provided the potential trigger for such penalties by saying Tehran continued to defy the Security Council ban on enrichment and instead was expanding its activities.
Larijani's offer appeared designed to address another main concern in that report - refusal by Iran to provide answers on questionable activities during nearly two decades of clandestine nuclear activities that first came to light four years ago.
They include: traces of enriched uranium at a facility linked to the military, which could be a sign of a weapons program; lack of documentation on Iran's past enrichment activities, and possession of documents showing how to form uranium metal into the form of missile warheads.
Expressing concerns about years of stonewalling, that IAEA report warned that ``unless Iran addresses the long-standing verification issues ... the agency will not be able to fully reconstruct the history of Iran's nuclear program.'' That, in turns means that the IAEA cannot provide assurances ... about the exclusively peaceful nature of that program.''
Still, with the main Security Council demand focusing on an enrichment freeze, it was unclear whether overture by Larijani would suffice to blunt the possibility of new sanctions - the third since the first set was imposed late last year.
Although Iran insists it has the right to the technology to generate nuclear power, it has been hit with U.N. sanctions because of suspicions that it wants to make the atomic bomb.
Iran's ultimate stated goal is running 54,000 centrifuges to churn out enriched uranium for what it says is power generation. But critics say that equipment could also make enough fissile material or dozens of nuclear warheads a year.
On Thursday, Solana - representing the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany - clearly suggested that he and Larijani made no headway on the enrichment dispute.
``Sometimes we are not able to move the process as we like, but in any case the atmosphere continues to be very positive,'' he said. Both he and Larijani said the main focus of their 4 hour talks were ``outstanding issues with the IAEA.''
Larijani spoke of ``some useful ideas that both sides introduced,'' and he mentioned ``common ground'' without going into detail. Solana said he and Larijani had ``an exchange of ideas on how to move the process'' forward, and spoke of a ``good atmosphere.''
Both men said their aides would meet in about a week to prepare the ground for another Solana-Larijani meeting in about two weeks' time.
With both Iran and the United States voicing hard-line positions ahead of the meeting, expectations on any progress on the enrichment issue were already muted before the two men began their discussions at a former hunting estate on the outskirts of Madrid.
Diplomats told The Associated Press that, although Tehran recently suggested it was ready to discuss a partial suspension of uranium enrichment, the West did not respond and Iran has since withdrawn its offer to break the nuclear impasse.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking in Vienna, Austria, before the Madrid talks, said the onus was on Iran.
``I think it's time for Iran to change its tactics,'' Rice told reporters outside a conference on the role of women in the Middle East. If Iran does so, she said, ``then we are prepared to ... sit with Iran and talk about whatever Iran would like to talk about.
``But that can't be done when Iran continues to pursue, to try to perfect technologies that are going to lead to a nuclear weapon,'' Rice said.
Larijani, in comments to the Iranian state news agency before leaving for Spain, said: ï¿½Suspension is not the right solution for solving Iran's nuclear issue.ï¿½
Reconciliation talks between North and South Korea ended Friday with no agreements reached, following a row over Seoul's decision to link promised rice aid to Pyongyang's denuclearisation.
After four days of high-level talks, the two sides issued a four-sentence statement that set no date for the next ministerial meeting.
The South's Unification Ministry had said earlier in the day that no joint statement would be issued and described the mood as "not good."
The two sides said only that they "have sufficiently presented their positions and held sincere discussions on fundamental and actual matters linked to progress in inter-Korean relations."
They agreed "to continue to further examine ways to boost reconciliation and cooperation between the two Koreas and peace on the Korean peninsula."
The South has refused to make its first shipment of much-needed rice aid until the North begins honouring a six-nation nuclear disarmament deal reached in February.
The communist state says that the two issues are unrelated and that "foreign powers" -- a reference to the United States -- are interfering with the rice deal.
"Rice was the most difficult issue," the South's chief delegate, Unification Minister Lee Jae-Joung, told reporters, adding there were "frank discussions" on the topic.
Delegation spokesman Ko Gyoung-Bin said the North Koreans were told it would be impossible to win public support for the rice deal if implementation of the nuclear agreement is delayed further.
Hankook newspaper said the North Koreans on Thursday had threatened to halt a reunion programme for separated families unless the South delivered its aid.
"The North Korea side made no remarks on any specific event," Ko said.
The ministerial talks are the highest-level regular contacts between two nations still technically at war following their 1950-53 conflict. But efforts to ease tensions and promote joint economic projects have fallen foul of the continuing nuclear impasse.
At this week's talks, South Korea reiterated appeals to the North to shut down its Yongbyon reactor, the first step in the February deal. It produces the raw material for bomb-making plutonium.
The North refuses to budge until it receives 25 million dollars which had been frozen since 2005 in Macau's Banco Delta Asia (BDA) under US-inspired sanctions.
Washington said the accounts were unfrozen in March but the North has had problems finding a foreign bank to handle the transfer of cash deemed to be tainted.
Peter Beck, Northeast Asia director of the International Crisis Group, told AFP the US Treasury is understood to be unwilling to issue a legal waiver to any bank which makes the transfer.
Pyongyang has rejected a suggestion by chief US nuclear negotiator Christopher Hill that it start shutting down Yongbyon before the long-running banking dispute is settled.
"The issue of BDA has to be solved first," Kim Myong-Gil, deputy chief of the North Korean mission to the United Nations, told Yonhap news agency by phone Thursday.
Inter-Korean relations soured last year with the North's missile launches and nuclear test, but improved after the February nuclear deal.
At the last ministerial round in March the South agreed in principle to resume annual rice and fertiliser aid. But it delayed the first shipment of rice, out of an annual total of 400,000 tons, pending progress on disarmament.
Seoul's "sunshine" engagement policy with the North has been criticised in the past for giving too much in return for too few concessions. Its apparent toughness this time surprised some analysts.
"Seoul has discovered some backbone in dealing with the North," said Beck.
But he added it was unfortunate that the bone of contention was humanitarian aid when the focus should be on cash transfers to the North through joint projects.
Indian and US delegates met for a second day on Friday to seal a much-touted civilian nuclear deal between the two countries, officials said.
The deal has been delayed by disagreements over clauses that India says could limit its nuclear weapons program and, in the process, impinge on its sovereignty.
On Friday, U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns met with India's junior External Affairs Minister Anand Sharma in New Delhi, said U.S. Embassy official Unni Menon.
"The deal is mutually advantageous. There is no question in my mind that we would continue hard work, and in good spirit we can reach a final agreement, and we look forward to that," Burns told reporters.
Technical-level talks were also held Friday, Menon said. Details were not immediately available on the progress of the talks, which were set to end Saturday.
Burns was also scheduled to meet India's External Affairs Minister Pranab Kumar Mukherjee, and National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan.
The nuclear deal is seen as the cornerstone of an emerging partnership between Washington and New Delhi after decades of Cold War wariness.
"We've made a lot of progress in that agreement," Burns said ahead of the talks with Indian Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon.
However, Burns continued, "some hard work has to be done." One of the biggest sticking points has been India's displeasure with a clause that would let the United States halt cooperation if India tests a nuclear weapon.
Some in India also fear the deal could limit the country's right to reprocess spent atomic fuel - a key step in making weapons-grade nuclear material - and thus hamper its long-standing weapons program.
American critics, meanwhile, say the plan would spark a nuclear arms race in Asia by allowing India to use the extra nuclear fuel, which the deal would provide, to free up its domestic uranium for weapons.
Burns was visiting New Delhi days before US President George W. Bush is expected to discuss the deal with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when they meet on the sidelines of a G-8 summit in Germany.
1. N. Koreaï¿½s Nuclear Program to Top Lavrovï¿½s Agenda in Seoul
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Russia's foreign minister will visit South Korea June 4-5 where his agenda will be dominated by stalled international negotiations aimed at persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear program, a diplomatic spokesman said.
"We support the early removal of all obstacles to the implementation of achieved agreements," Mikhail Kamynin, spokesman of the Russian Foreign Ministry, said ahead of Sergei Lavrov's visit.
During talks in February between six negotiators - Russia, the United States, China, North and South Korea, and Japan - North Korea agreed to stop its nuclear reactor and let in international weapons inspectors after it receives its $25-million funds deposited in China's Banco Delta Asia.
Washington unfroze the funds in March but the transfer has been stalled, and the reclusive Communist state delayed shutting down its Yongbyon reactor.
Another important issue to be addressed during Lavrov's visit is a trilateral project involving Russia, and North and South Korea, to link the Trans-Korean railway to the Trans-Siberian for further transportation to Europe, Kamynin said.
"We are happy to see the interest of South Korean businessmen in the project and find it important to discuss this with the South Korean government, and also in a trilateral format," he said.
On May 17, two trains made historic rail crossings between North and South Korea, the first since the end of the 1951-1953 Korean War.
Asia Cooperation Dialogue
In Seoul, Lavrov will attend the sixth round of the 30-nation Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD) to discuss practical cooperation in science, technologies, education, culture, energy and transport.
Kamynin said the Russian minister would also have bilateral meetings with his counterparts from Thailand, China, Mongolia and Pakistan on the sidelines of the forum.
The United States and Russia have agreed on a plan to accelerate installation of radiation detection devices at 350 Russian border crossings so the system to prevent nuclear smuggling is fully operational by 2011, U.S. officials said on Friday.
"This announcement is a major cooperative step in counter-proliferation work in Russia," which contains a major portion of the world's nuclear material, said Will Tobey, deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration, a part of the U.S. Energy Department.
"It will help us prevent smuggling into and out of the region," he told Reuters in an interview. Russia identified more than 480 cases of illicit trafficking of nuclear and radioactive material in 2006. While U.S. officials said these cases were not believed to involve weapons-grade nuclear material, the number of cases underscores the scope of the problem.
Another U.S. official said the detection system could have an important application in efforts to prevent desperately poor North Korea, which last year tested its first nuclear device, from selling nuclear weapons or fuel.
"On the Russian border with North Korea we have detectors ... so we are able to monitor not only what is going into Russia, but also what might be coming out of North Korea," the official said. North Korea also has land borders with China and South Korea.
Although U.S.-Russian ties are increasingly tense over a number of major issues, Tobey said efforts to combat the threat of nuclear proliferation "is a bright spot of cooperation" with Moscow.
The two countries, which have the world's largest nuclear weapons arsenals, have been working to equip Russia's border crossings -- including airports, seaports, railways and land crossings -- with fixed portal radiation monitors and hand-held detection instruments since 1998.
Between 1998 and 2006, however, installations were completed at only 88 crossing points.
Under the new agreement, that pace will be greatly accelerated and Russia will share the cost, Tobey said.
By the end of 2007, the total border crossings outfitted with nuclear detection equipment is expected to be 200 and all of the 350 Russian crossings are to be equipped by 2011 -- six years ahead of previous targets, he said.
Tobey said the U.S. share is about $140 million and the Russian cost, borne by the Russian Federal Customs Service, is about equal.
One feature of the new agreement is Russia's pledge to maintain the detection equipment after installations are complete.
Training for Russian customs officials is part of the program.
U.S. experts have long been concerned that Russian nuclear technology -- fissile material and weapons -- could be stolen or sold from Russian facilities, many of which are poorly secured and maintained. The United States has spent millions of dollars to try to remedy this problem.
Tobey declined to speculate on why so few border detection installations were completed in the past. He said the Russians have become increasingly comfortable in working with Americans on the detection program and are increasingly focused on the nuclear proliferation threat.
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