After two years of faltering diplomatic efforts, the United States and the world's other major powers met yesterday to discuss new inducements to lure Iran to the negotiating table for talks on its disputed nuclear program, according to officials involved in the initiative.
The meeting here among representatives of Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States focused on possible new overtures, such as international help with Iran's growing narcotics crisis, deals on energy field exploitation and support for security talks among the oil-rich Persian Gulf nations, said the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because diplomacy is ongoing. The goal of the new economic and security incentives is to persuade Iran to finally suspend uranium enrichment, a process that can be used for both peaceful nuclear energy and the production of deadly weapons.
The Bush administration is prepared to consider new outreach but is hesitant to go too far, mainly out of concern that Tehran will conclude that delays help it win concessions from the international community. "These are all European ideas, and the U.S. took a very conservative stance," a senior State Department official said. One of the proposals rejected outright was that the United States be party to security guarantees for Iran, an official in the talks said.
Also under discussion, said officials present at the talks, was how to circumvent loyalists to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who have rejected all international overtures, and reach out to officials close to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who have indicated a willingness to negotiate.
European representatives proposed many of the ideas when the Bush administration agreed in 2006 to join a European initiative to reach out to Iran with both carrots and sticks. Washington originally rebuffed most of the ideas, but with less than a year left to achieve one of its top foreign policy objectives, the Bush administration is prepared to explore such options to "reinvigorate" the deadlocked effort, the U.S. official said.
The six powers hope to wrap up this week a U.N. resolution imposing new sanctions on Tehran, the sources said. At yesterday's meeting, the six nations also drafted a communique to be released when the resolution is passed that will "reaffirm" a "keen interest" in negotiations with Iran, the U.S. official said.
"You have to strengthen all the instruments you have, both sanctions and incentives," a European diplomat said. "The idea with the third resolution is to increase sanctions, but incentives are part of the philosophy."
But the new sanctions resolution -- a sequel to those in December 2006 and March 2007 that targeted Iranian banks, senior officials and military industries -- faces an uphill battle. The draft is guaranteed passage because it has the support of the five permanent U.N. Security Council members, but it does not have the unanimity of previous resolutions, which won approval from all 15 council members.
The six powers that met in Washington yesterday are concerned that any dissent on the Security Council would lead Iran to believe it has begun to crack international resolve, officials present at the talks said.
"That's why it should not be a sweeter package, but a reasonable one that makes them understand it's the best thing to get to the negotiating table. That's what it's about," said a second European diplomat party to the talks. "Does it make them think we're running after them? That's not what it's about."
Four of the non-permanent Security Council members -- South Africa, Libya, Indonesia and Vietnam -- have expressed reservations about additional sanctions on Iran. The permanent members and Germany plan to spend the week pressing them to accede, possibly changing the resolution to reflect their concerns. The resolution has already been significantly weakened -- it merely calls for vigilance and makes most punitive measures voluntary -- compared with the original U.S.-backed draft last fall.
The goal of the six powers is to get a vote by Friday, before Russia takes over from Panama as president of the Security Council. Moscow, which has important trade ties with Iran and built its first nuclear reactor, does not want to oversee the vote, officials said.
The timing of the carrot-and-stick diplomacy is pegged to Iran's March 14 parliamentary elections, diplomats said. The goal is to have the U.N. resolution in place before the vote, with new overtures to Tehran agreed upon among the six powers within six weeks to two months after the vote.
Iran said Sunday that it has started using new centrifuges that can churn out enriched uranium at more than double the rate of the machines that now form the backbone of the Islamic nation's nuclear program.
The announcement was the first official confirmation by Tehran after diplomats with the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog reported earlier this month that Iran was using 10 of the new IR-2 centrifuges.
"We are (now) running a new generation of centrifuges," the official IRNA news agency quoted Javad Vaidi, deputy of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, as saying. No futher details were provided.
Meanwhile, a senior Iranian official on Sunday blamed the U.S. for Tehran's refusal to respond to an International Atomic Energy Agency probe into whether Iran tried to make nuclear weapons in the past. Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, Iran's chief delegate to the IAEA, claimed information provided by Washington and used by the U.N. agency was fake and it came to Tehran too late for a proper review.
The U.S. dismissed the complaint, saying Iran could have answered concerns about its nuclear program years ago.
Tehran insists its nuclear program is intended only to produce energy, but the U.S. and some of its allies suspect it could lead to the development of weapons.
Iran is already under two sets of U.N. Security Council sanctions for refusing to suspend uranium enrichment. The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany have agreed on a draft resolution for a third set of sanctions.
The IAEA highlighted the "new-generation centrifuges" in its latest report on Iran released Friday, but did not provide details on their operation.
Earlier this month, diplomats accredited to the IAEA told The Associated Press that 10 IR-2 centrifuges had started processing small quantities of uranium hexafluoride gas in a process that can produce fuel for a nuclear reactor or fissile material for a weapon.
Ten centrifuges are too few to produce enriched uranium in the quantities needed for an industrial-scale energy or weapons program and far below the 3,000 older centrifuges in Iran's underground enrichment plant in the central town of Natanz.
Friday's IAEA report said many past questions about Iran's nuclear program had been resolved but highlighted Tehran's continued refusal to halt uranium enrichment, paving the way for another set of sanctions.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Saturday the report vindicated Iran and called on the U.S. and its allies to apologize for accusing Tehran of seeking nuclear weapons. He also warned that Tehran would take unspecified "decisive reciprocal measures" against any country that imposed additional sanctions against Iran.
Most of the material shown to Iran by the IAEA in its investigation of the nation's alleged attempts to make nuclear arms came from Washington, though some was provided by U.S. allies, diplomats told The Associated Press. The agency shared it with Tehran only after the nations gave their permission.
But Soltanieh dismissed much of the material as false. In any case, he said, it came too late ï¿½ three years after U.S. intelligence claimed it had material on a laptop computer smuggled out of Iran indicating that Tehran had been working on details of nuclear weapons. The data supposedly included missile trajectories and ideal altitudes for exploding warheads.
"They should have given it to us three years ago," Soltanieh said, suggesting Tehran would then have had a more substantive response.
Instead, he said, Iran did not get an offer for a review until mid-February. By that time, he said, the deadline for the conclusion of the IAEA investigation into Iran's nuclear past had passed and experts were already working on the agency's report.
"All of a sudden, the Americans notice this thing is going to be closed," he said, referring to the investigation. Suddenly, he added, "they have additional and new documents ï¿½ these dirty games should be stopped immediately."
The United States denied being at fault.
"Iran did not need to wait for information to answer" the accusations coming from many sides that it was trying to make nuclear arms, said Gregory L. Schulte, the top U.S. delegate to the IAEA.
Soltanieh also acknowledged that his country's uranium enrichment program was experiencing "ups and downs." It appeared to be the first Iran admitted its enrichment activities were running into some difficulties.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice won a verbal assurance Tuesday from China to use its influence to jump-start the stalled process of dismantling North Korea's nuclear programs. Yet it was unclear when or how the Chinese would follow through.
In broad discussions with Chinese officials, Rice also won an agreement from China to resume an on-again, off-again human rights dialogue with the United States and she pleased her Chinese hosts by restating firm U.S. opposition to a Taiwanese referendum on United Nations entry that has infuriated Beijing.
But North Korea dominated the talks and Rice urged China, which has considerable leverage with its Stalinist neighbor, along with others n the six-nation denuclearization effort, to "use all influence possible" with Pyongyang to meet its pledges to the group.
"I believe that all of the parties to the six-party talks have both an obligation and an interest to make certain that the obligations of the first phase are carried out," Rice told reporters at a news conference with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi. "We are the cusp of something very special here," she said, referring to the shutdown and continuing disablement of North Korea's main nuclear facility in Yongbyon. "Now it is time to move on because the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is in everyone's interest."
"What I am expecting from China is what I am expecting from others: Use all influence possible with the North Koreans to convince them that it is time to move forward," Rice said.
Yang said China was "consistently committed to the six-party talks and the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula" and would continue to work on the matter. But he also made clear that Beijing had already pressed the North hard on the matter.
"The Chinese side hopes that the parties will treasure the results we have already produced, which have not come easily," he said through an interpreter at Beijing's Diaoyutai State Guesthouse.
Yang added that China wanted all members of process ï¿½ the United States, China, Japan, Russia, North and South Korea ï¿½ to "create favorable conditions to overcome the current difficulties and move forward the six-party process as soon as possible."
Although progress has been made in disabling Yongbyon, the United States says North Korea has not yet produced a full declaration of its nuclear programs, including details on the transfer of technology and know-how that could be used to develop atomic weapons.
The declaration was due almost two months ago, and the North says it has already met the requirement but the Bush administration rejects the claim, which has slowed progress on the process aimed at restoring stability in North Asia and bringing a final end to the Korean War.
Yang said China was eager to see the second phase of the denuclearization process ï¿½ the complete dismantlement of Yongbyon, the production of the declaration and in return the provision of fuel oil to North Korea ï¿½ completed quickly.
Rice is in China on the second leg of a three-nation tour of Asia that has already taken her to South Korea and ends in Japan on Thursday.
The trip coincides with an historic performance in North Korea by the New York Philharmonic later Tuesday in an unprecedented cultural exchange that some have dubbed "violin diplomacy."
But the classically trained pianist has steered clear of the topic, ignoring it entirely on Monday in Seoul where she attended the inauguration of new South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and lauded his intent to hold North Korea to its promise to abandon nuclear weapons.
Rice has previously played down the possible impact of the concert noting that North Korea's reclusive and authoritarian leadership is unlikely to be influenced by it.
She has ruled out talks with North Korean officials while in China, saying such a meeting was neither warranted nor could be of any use in the current circumstances.
In Beijing, Rice said she had also raised human rights issues, along with intellectual property protections, product safety, efforts to impose new sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program and the upcoming referendum in Taiwan ï¿½ an island Beijing sees as a breakaway province.
Yang said China had agreed to resume the human rights dialogue with the United States that it had broken off in 2004 when the Bush administration unsuccessfully sponsored a resolution censuring China before the U.N. Human Rights Commission. He did not, however, give a date.
China bristles at criticism of its human rights record, which it regards as meddling in its internal affairs, and groups have accused the administration of playing down its lapses to win Beijing's help in dealing with North Korea, Iran and the war on terrorism.
Rice said she approached the matter with "respect" for the Chinese but stressed that civil liberties and religious freedoms are "very near and dear to American values."
A senior State Department official said Rice raised specific cases of concern with Yang, but gave no details.
On Iran, Rice said the United States was seeking Chinese support for new U.N. Security Council sanctions against Tehran over its nuclear programs. China and Russia, veto-wielding permanent members of the council, have been resisting the effort.
Yang did not directly address how China would vote but called for all sides "to work creatively" to resolve the matter.
The foreign minister also said Beijing "appreciated" Washington's outspoken opposition to the Taiwanese referendum, which Rice restated on Tuesday.
"We believe this referendum is not going to help anyone," she said. "In fact, it should not be held."
Britain has signed up to a U.S.-sponsored club of countries that want to see more nuclear power plants built globally while keeping atomic weapons in the hands of a few.
Britain became the 21st member of the Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), which aims to keep a firm grip on technologies that can be used to make nuclear weapons, when UK industry minister John Hutton signed up on Tuesday.
"The UK shares in the vision of improved non-proliferation and nuclear waste management and recognizes the real benefits of initiatives such as GNEP," Hutton said in a statement issued before the signing in Washington.
"With a new generation of nuclear energy now set to be part of the UK's future energy mix, the UK is in position to play a role in this global initiative."
The British government is in talks with some of Europe's largest utilities about building a new generation of atomic power plants in the country and Hutton is expected to meet U.S.-based companies interested in taking part during his visit.
The U.S. sees the GNEP, which was initiated by President George W. Bush in 2006, as way to share expertise in waste management to countries hoping to build their first reactors, while keeping a grip on the technologies and knowledge that could be used to develop atomic weapons.
"This important addition provides great momentum for GNEP and will help advance its important goals of expanding clean, safe nuclear power development while reducing the risk of nuclear proliferation," U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said in a statement.
All but one of GNEP's original members -- China, France, Russia and the United States -- have nuclear weapons, with only Japan limiting its nuclear activity to energy. Britain also has nuclear weapons.
The U.S. suspects Iran's nuclear program is aimed at making nuclear weapons. Tehran says it only wants nuclear power is not on the waiting list to join GNEP.
Algeria and Saudi Arabia, which have also shown an interest in nuclear power as a way of boosting oil exports, are not lining up to join the group. Italy, where nuclear power has been outlawed since the late 1980s, joined last November.
Senegal in west Africa became the 20th member of the group at the start of February, while Canada, the Republic of Korea, Australia, Bulgaria, Ghana, Hungary, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, and Ukraine joined last year.
Other candidate or observer countries include Argentina, Brazil, Egypt, Mexico, Morocco and Turkey.
Argentina and Brazil have agreed in Buenos Aires to begin negotiations during the next 120 days to build a joint uranium enrichment plant.
Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and visiting Luiz Inacio Lula of Brazil made the declaration, covering energy, transport and space satellite cooperation, Mercopress reported Sunday.
"The strategic alliance between Argentina and Brazil is of the utmost importance," said Lula.
Uranium enrichment provides the fuel needed to operate nuclear plants, but is also used for nuclear weapons, which is a leading concern in Washington.
Argentina has previously been praised for its role in opposing nuclear proliferation. Argentina has two operating nuclear plants and is seeking to bring another online by 2010, and Brazil also has two operating nuclear plants and is working on a third.
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