Iran, U.S. in Delicate Nuclear Negotiations Dance

The U.S. wants Iran to stop its uranium enrichment program. So far, Iran has publicly refused to consider changes to its nuclear program. But now the country is hinting that there may be room for negotiation, after all.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Iran's president says he's open to what he described as new conditions to resolve his country's standoff with the West. At issue is Iran's nuclear program. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke of it while on his way to a summit of non-aligned countries in Cuba. Earlier, Iran had indicated it may be willing to suspend uranium enrichment during negotiations, but the United States insisted Iran must suspend that process before new talks.

As NPR's Mike Shuster reports, it's hard to know how wide the differences are now.

MIKE SHUSTER: The confusing and convoluted negotiations with Iran have been going on for more than three years now. But this most recent episode began last weekend, when Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, met with the European Union's foreign policy director, Javier Solana, in Vienna. Both sides reported progress, and Iran's Larijani was uncharacteristically talkative.

Mr. ALI LARIJANI (Chief Nuclear Negotiator, Iran): We have had a constructive progress made and we have reached common points of view on a number of issues that we have. And as it was mentioned by Mr. Solana, many of the misunderstandings were removed.

SHUSTER: Iran has been negotiating with Solana because three European countries - Britain, France and Germany - took the lead on this issue, and with the backing of the United States offered Iran last June a package of economic and technological incentives if it stops enriching uranium.

The Iranians didn't respond to that offer until late August. Sources in Iran say it took the various centers of political power until then to reach consensus. And the recent counter-offer they made to the Europeans suggested, amidst much ambiguity, that they might consider a suspension of uranium enrichment, but only in the context of new negotiations, not as a precondition.

After the Larijani-Solana meetings, European diplomats began to drop hints that Larijani put a possible suspension of uranium enrichment on the table. The Bush administration isn't buying it. On Monday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Iran must suspend its enrichment first before any new talks can take place. On Tuesday, State Department Spokesman Tom Casey denied that anything new had happened.

Mr. TOM CASEY (Spokesman, U.S. State Department): To the best of my knowledge there has been no Iranian proposal. There has been no change in the Iranian position, meaning they have not agreed to suspend uranium enrichment activities for any length of time.

SHUSTER: The U.S. view is that the Iranians are stalling for time as they continue with enrichment, although a recent report from the International Atomic Energy Agency indicates Iran has been very slow to achieve progress on the technical aspects of uranium enrichment. So the U.S. is pressing ahead for a new Security Council resolution on economic sanctions. So far there is little support for sanctions. The Europeans want to talk more with Iran. So does Russia and China. And so do the board members of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is meeting in Vienna this week, according to its director, Mohamed ElBaradei.

Mr. MOHAMED ELBARADEI (International Atomic Energy Agency): They would like also to see progress in getting back all the parties to the negotiating table and start discussing the package of proposals and also discussing the Iranian response.

SHUSTER: So is there progress or not? Abbas Milani thinks there is. He is head of the Iran Democracy Project at Stanford University.

Mr. ABBAS MILANI (Stanford University): I think negotiations have now moved from the stage of confrontation to a kind of a subtle dance where both sides are trying to find a safe sailing way out of the impasse.

SHUSTER: The hints from the Iranian side are that during the course of new talks, Iran could voluntarily suspend uranium enrichment as a positive gesture. But senior Iranian officials say if the U.S. insists on that as a precondition, the Iranian leadership will not budge. The glimmer of flexibility, though, could also be a negotiating tactic designed to separate Europe, Russia and China from the tougher U.S. position, says Abbas Milani.

Mr. MILANI: This creative ambiguity about whether they will suspend, how long will they suspend, all of this is doing what it was purported to do, which is crack this alliance and allow them to once again use different elements of this alliance against the United States in particular.

SHUSTER: The U.S. will use the opening of the U.N. General Assembly in New York next week to press ahead for economic sanctions.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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