The five permanent U.N. Security Council members, Germany and the European Union held talks Wednesday in China to restart efforts to ensure Iran's nuclear intentions are peaceful.
First on the agenda of the closed-door meeting was a package of proposed political, security and economic incentives aimed at pursuading Iran to stop a uranium enrichment program that the U.S. and many of its allies fear could produce material for weapons.
"We are hopeful to reach an agreement," the meeting's chairman, Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister, He Yafei, said at the start of talks at a downtown hall.
Talks featured the EU and the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China ï¿½ the six countries that have been in the forefront of efforts to rein in Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Iran insists its program is intended only to produce energy and Iran has refused to suspend it, despite three rounds of Security Council sanctions.
The one-day meeting in China's financial center, Shanghai, comes a week after Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran was installing thousands of new uranium-enriching centrifuges and testing a much faster version of the device.
But U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned that the claim could not be immediately verified.
Iran has about 3,000 centrifuges operating at its underground nuclear facility in Natanz. That is the commonly accepted figure for a nuclear enrichment program that is past the experimental stage and can be used as a platform for a full industrial-scale program that could churn out enough enriched material for dozens of nuclear weapons over time.
Iran has said it plans to move toward large-scale uranium enrichment that ultimately will involve 54,000 centrifuges.
Iran says a report released by the International Atomic Energy Agency in February vindicated Iran's nuclear program and left no justification for any Security Council sanctions.
2. US, Iran in Secret Discussions on Nuclear Program: Report
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The United States and Iran have been conducting secret back-channel discussions on Tehran's nuclear program and frozen relations between the two countries, The Independent reported Monday.
The British newspaper quotes former US under secretary of state Thomas Pickering as saying that a group of former US diplomats and foreign policy experts had been meeting with Iranian academics and policy advisers "in a lot of different places, although not in the US or Iran" for the past five years.
"Some of the Iranians were connected to official institutions inside Iran," Pickering told the paper.
Last week, the United States warned Iran it risked further isolation and new international sanctions after refusing to comply with UN Security Council resolutions over its disputed nuclear program.
The West fears Iran could use enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon, and Tehran's refusal to suspend the process has been punished with three sets of UN Security Council sanctions resolutions and US pressure on its banking system.
The US government is hoping the sanctions will put increasing popular pressure on the Iranian leadership, with which it does not have diplomatic relations.
The Independent reported that the contact group was put together by the UN Association of the USA and facilitated by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a think-tank chaired by former chief UN weapons inspector Rolf Ekeus.
"We discussed what's going on domestically in both countries and wide-ranging issues," The Independent quoted Pickering as saying.
He added that although none of the group members was from the US or Iranian governments, "each side kept their officials informed," according to the British paper.
Amid western concerns about the safety of Pakistan's nuclear aresenal, the United States has sought direct access to the body controlling the country's nuclear assets for an American official to be posted at its embassy here.
The US State Department sent a proposal to the Pakistan government after a set of 11 demands dispatched earlier by Washington to Islamabad regarding the deployment of American military personnel in the country, were refused by Pakistani authorities.
The latest request from Washington had suggested that the official who would be permanently posted in the US embassy here to deal with nuclear issues should have direct access to the National Command Authority (NCA) Secretariat, The News reported Monday.
The earlier request had wanted American citizens sent by the US government to be treated above Pakistan's national law.
Leading security analyst Shireen Mazari, the head of the Institute of Strategic Studies, said this latest move by the US was "perhaps the most dangerous effort at intruding into Pakistan's sensitive areas in the ongoing effort to gain direct access to nuclearategic matters".
1. White House says US Accepts Tentative Nuke Deal with North Korea
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President George W. Bush accepts a tentative deal reached by US and North Korean negotiators which is aimed at breaking a deadlock in nuclear disarmament talks, the White House said on Monday.
"I believe so, yes," spokeswoman Dana Perino said, when asked if Bush approved of the agreement in Singapore last week between Christopher Hill and his counterpart Kim Kye-Gwan.
The talks aimed to resolve differences over the communist North's nuclear declaration, which was promised by the end of last year under a six-nation agreement.
The US says it should clear up suspicions about an alleged secret uranium enrichment programme and about suspected nuclear proliferation to Syria. The North denies both charges.
Hill refused to reveal any details of the Singapore talks but said the two sides "definitely made progress".
Numerous media reports say that under a pending deal, the North would "acknowledge" concerns about uranium and proliferation in a secret side-agreement with the US.
The main declaration, to be delivered to six-party talks host China, would refer only to the acknowledged plutonium-based weapons operation.
Perino said on Monday that Hill had "good meetings" last week but that the US is still waiting for a "complete and accurate declaration".
Under the deal, the US would start the process of removing North Korea from its list of terrorism-sponsoring states in return for a satisfactory declaration and for the disablement of Pyongyang's main plutonium-producing plants.
Perino said the removal is part of the package, "but things happen in sequence, and so it is way premature to suggest that that's going to happen anytime soon".
A North Korean foreign ministry spokesman said last week the Singapore meeting produced an agreement on its declaration and also on "political compensation" from Washington, an apparent reference to the terrorism listing.
The six-party talks, which began in 2003, group the US, the two Koreas, China, Japan and Russia.
Not since North Korea conducted a nuclear test in October 2006 has the decibel level on the Korean Peninsula been so high. In the last few weeks, Pyongyang's state-run media have branded South Korea's new president, Lee Myung-bak, a "U.S. sycophant," a "charlatan" and a "traitor" and warned the South that the North had the capacity to "reduce it to ashes." North Korean fighter jets, meanwhile, have buzzed the demilitarized zone and Pyongyang has test-fired short-range missiles off its western coast.
Many observers have characterized the North's latest actions as the behavior of an irrational, dangerous, surrealistically isolated regime. In reality, such moves have always been less a product of paranoia than a calculated way of making political points to the outside world. Although exasperating and alarming, there is a method to North Korea's madness. But to understand what Pyongyang is doing, one must start with what is going on in Seoul.
In late February, Lee, a conservative business leader turned politician, became South Korea's president following a decade-long thaw between the North and South. His two more liberal predecessors, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, had pursued a "sunshine policy" toward North Korea of diplomatic engagement, economic cooperation and humanitarian assistance with no strings attached. Convinced that engagement had been largely a one-way street, however, Lee proposed a fundamental shift, vowing to link further aid and economic collaboration with North Korean "reciprocity" on the nuclear issue.
Lee has proved true to his word. South Korea voted for a U.N. resolution condemning North Korea's human rights record. Then the chairman of South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff declared that the South would consider launching a preemptive strike on North Korea's nuclear facilities if they became a military threat.
To the North Koreans, these actions -- which previous South Korean administrations had avoided for fear of angering Pyongyang -- represented a diplomatic betrayal, and the push-back began almost immediately.
"It is the traditional method of . . . our revolutionary armed forces," Pyongyang thundered in the same commentary that denounced President Lee, "to return fire and counter any hard-line steps with the toughest measures."
Such a reaction was almost entirely predictable. Indeed, for many years, North Korea has adopted a strategy of tit for tat -- responding positively to conciliatory overtures but extremely sharply to pressure, to emphasize that it will not bow to coercion and that it is strong enough to demand respect and attention from the international community.
When the Bush administration sought to pressure Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program in late 2002 and early 2003, for example, the North reacted by restarting its frozen plutonium reactor. After the U.N. Security Council imposed sanctions following the North's July 2006 missile tests, Pyongyang defied the international community and tested a nuclear bomb that October.
But when, less than a month later, the Bush administration abandoned its previous policy by holding a bilateral meeting and promising to resolve a dispute over North Korean funds frozen in Macao -- addressing long-standing North Korean demands -- Pyongyang promptly agreed to return to the six-party talks on the nuclear issue. Barely four months later, in February 2007, a deal to end the nuclear program was concluded.
Pyongyang's response to the tough talk from Seoul, and especially the threat of preemptive strikes, fits into this pattern. "You have a four-star South Korean general talking about preemptive military strikes," noted one former senior U.S. State Department expert on Korea. "What else is the North supposed to do?"
The North-South flare-up comes at a crucial time, with South Korea's Lee arriving in Washington this week and U.S.-North Korean negotiations on the nuclear issue at a sensitive stage.
For months, Washington and Pyongyang have struggled to implement the February 2007 deal, under which the North committed to disable its nuclear facilities and provide a full accounting of its nuclear materials in return for fuel oil, other assistance and a U.S. promise to end sanctions. The original deadline for achieving these goals was Dec. 31, 2007.
Nearly four months later, both sides are increasingly frustrated. With food shortages growing in North Korea, Pyongyang complains that it hasn't received all the aid it was promised and that the U.S. is dragging its feet on easing sanctions. Washington, in turn, charges that the North hasn't laid all of its cards on the table, including details of Pyongyang's possible nuclear links with Syria.
Still, for all the harsh rhetoric toward Seoul, North Korea has been careful to reaffirm its desire for better ties with Washington. The North declared that Pyongyang "keeps its doors open to the U.S., a hostile country, to improve relations with it."
For his part, with few other viable options and looking to burnish his foreign policy legacy, President Bush is eager to avoid renewed confrontation and to secure a denuclearization deal. The hard-line posture of the new South Korean government, however, threatens to undermine this goal.
There's more than a little irony in this. In the first six years of the Bush administration, Lee's liberal predecessors pushed for greater engagement with the North, often putting them in conflict with Washington's more confrontational approach. Now the roles appear reversed -- the U.S. seeking to implement the 2007 nuclear deal with Kim Jong Il amid Seoul's new get-tough attitude.
Thus, much depends on Lee's meeting with Bush. In a goodwill gesture, the White House has invited Lee to Camp David, a privilege it declined to offer to his predecessors despite their repeated requests. The tensions between Seoul and Pyongyang certainly complicate this diplomacy. But the North's saber-rattling has put the ball squarely back in the U.S.-South Korean court. It will be up to Lee and Bush to craft a response that will keep the nuclear negotiations and North-South rapprochement on track -- or face an increasingly dangerous situation on the Korean Peninsula.
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