New York Times: Iran and its European partners struggled Friday to salvage their agreement committing Tehran to freeze an important part of its nuclear program, European and Iranian officials said. But the two sides were so far apart that their talks were put off until Monday. New York Times
By ELAINE SCIOLINO
VIENNA – Iran and its European partners struggled Friday to salvage their agreement committing Tehran to freeze an important part of its nuclear program, European and Iranian officials said. But the two sides were so far apart that their talks were put off until Monday.
The agreement was thrown into jeopardy this week after Iran announced plans to operate 20 centrifuges that can enrich uranium that could be used either for energy purposes or in a project to make a nuclear bomb.
That declaration stunned and angered France, Britain and Germany, Iran’s negotiating partners. They said it violated Iran’s commitment under the Nov. 15 agreement negotiated in Paris to freeze all activities related to uranium enrichment.
For a moment on Friday, it seemed as if the two sides had found a formula that would work.
In an interview, Hossein Mousavian, the chief Iranian negotiator, expressed surprise that the centrifuge issue had become a potential deal-breaker. He predicted that a compromise would be reached, and expressed optimism that the deal would hold.
“This is not a key issue for Iran,” he said. “And we really couldn’t believe this could be an important issue for the Europeans. We didn’t understand why this has become so important worldwide. We are going to resolve it.”
But Mr. Mousavian, who is also the head of the foreign policy committee of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, cautioned that decision makers in Tehran had yet to agree to the compromise. By late on Friday night, they had not.
A telephone conversation on Friday between Foreign Secretary Jack Straw of Britain and Hassan Rowhani, a powerful midlevel cleric who leads the Supreme National Security Council, was “inconclusive,” said one British official.
The conversation was made more difficult because Mr. Straw was on a train, the two men were talking through an interpreter and the connection was broken off at least once, said Sirous Nasseri, a member of the Iranian delegation.
“We are poor laborers trying to clarify what is said between the politicians,” Mr. Nasseri said of himself and his fellow delegates. “It’s floating for the time being. I cannot say where it’s floating, but it’s floating.”
Mr. Rowhani reports directly to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s spiritual leader. As the Iranian official ultimately responsible for Iran’s nuclear negotiations, Mr. Rowhani has come under fierce criticism at home for negotiating what many consider a deal that requires Iran to make concessions but gives nothing but promises in return.
The United States has largely kept its distance from the European deal with Iran, and American officials have predicted privately that it is doomed to fail.
But on Friday, President Bush welcomed the work of Europeans in trying to get Iran to honor its nuclear agreement, adding that any such deal must be verifiable.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations body responsible for monitoring nuclear activities, says it is awaiting a formal letter from Tehran pledging not to operate the centrifuges before the agency certifies that Iran’s suspension of its uranium enrichment programs is complete. Only then will the agency’s 35-country governing board pass a resolution stating that Iran is cooperating.
On Friday, Iranian and agency officials were negotiating a face-saving compromise under which Iran would switch off the 20 centrifuges but not allow them to be physically sealed by the I.A.E.A. Rather, the idea would be to put them under camera surveillance.
Inspectors from the agency told delegations that either method of monitoring was sufficient to certify Iran’s compliance with a total suspension of its enrichment activities.
In the interview, Mr. Mousavian denied that Iran’s initial demand to operate the centrifuges was a ploy to secure a more favorable resolution. But that has been the effect this week.
France, Britain and Germany, which have led the fevered negotiations on the I.A.E.A. resolution on Iran, on Friday informally circulated their third and least critical resolution this week.
The Iranian side has negotiated fiercely to water down the resolution, and Mr. Mousavian said his delegation was much more pleased with the new wording, adding, “We are very close to final agreement on it.” On that issue, however, he also said final approval from Tehran was still pending.
The United States, which is convinced that Iran is secretly building nuclear weapons, has so far failed in its efforts to persuade even its closest European allies to pass a harshly worded resolution that would send Iran’s case to the Security Council for possible sanctions.
But some diplomats said that if the Iran-Europe deal fell apart, the United States might propose its own resolution referring Iran to the Security Council for possible censure or sanctions if it did not freeze all of its uranium enrichment work.
In Iran, the deal has been criticized as a sign of weakness and capitulation to outside powers.
In an effort to quell that criticism, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, head of the powerful Guardian Council, said the agreement was aimed at “diverting an international consensus against Iran and sending the case to the United Nations Security Council.”
Speaking to worshipers gathered for Friday Prayer at Tehran University, he expressed the hope that “Europe will honor its pledge with Iran” at meetings of the agency’s board. Of course, he added, “Americans will also try their best to create problems.”
In other business on Friday, the board criticized South Korea for past illicit plutonium and uranium experiments.
But it rejected harsher penalties, including possible referral to the Security Council.
A statement from Ingrid Hall of Canada, the chairwoman of the board, said the agency would continue to monitor South Korea’s activities, which leaves open the possibility of tougher action at a later date.