Sunday, July 20, 2008

US-Iran Talks End In Stalemate Over Nuclear Program

July 20, 2008

U.S. Is Present, but Iran Nuclear Talks End in Stalemate

New York Times

GENEVA — International talks on Iran’s nuclear ambitions ended in deadlock on Saturday, despite the Bush administration’s decision to reverse policy and send a senior American official to the table for the first time.

The presence of William J. Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs, was one of the most important encounters between Iran and the United States since relations were severed nearly three decades ago. And it was part of a rare show of unity among the six negotiating partners — the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China — who pressed Iran to accept compromise.

But Iran responded with a written document that failed to address the main issue: international demands that it stop enriching uranium. And Iranian diplomats reiterated before the talks that they considered the issue nonnegotiable.

Specifically, the world powers wanted Iran to accept a formula known as “freeze-for-freeze” to break the deadlock. Under the formula, Iran would not add to its nuclear program, and the United States and other powers would not seek new international sanctions for six weeks to pave the way for formal negotiations. The proposal was originally offered to Iran last year and presented again to it last month as part of a new proposal to ultimately give Iran economic and political incentives if it stops producing enriched uranium.

But officials involved in Saturday’s negotiations said that when they repeatedly pressed the Iranians to say whether they could accept the idea, the question was evaded every time.

“We still didn’t get the answer we were looking for,” the European Union foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said at a news conference after several hours of talks, held in Geneva’s City Hall.

Mr. Solana said the Iranians were given two weeks to formally respond to the proposal before it would be withdrawn.

At the news conference, Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief negotiator, refused to answer whether Iran would accept a freeze of its uranium enrichment program, however temporary. But he called the negotiating process a “very beautiful endeavor” with a result that he hoped would eventually be “beautiful to behold.”

Mr. Burns did not speak privately with Mr. Jalili. But in a brief statement in the morning meeting, he said that the United States was serious in its support for the six-power process and serious that Iran must suspend its production of enriched uranium, the State Department said.

He told his negotiating partners after the talks that the United States would push for new punitive sanctions at the United Nations Security Council in September, one participant in the meeting said.

Saturday’s meeting at Geneva’s City Hall was one of the most important public encounters between an Iranian and an American official since relations were halted after the American Embassy was seized in Tehran in 1979.

Other authorized meetings have occurred. Madeleine K. Albright, as secretary of state, for example, once sat at the same table with then Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi and other emissaries at the United Nations to discuss Afghanistan. Colin L. Powell, as secretary of state, once shook Mr. Kharrazi’s hand. American and Iranian officials have met episodically in Baghdad to discuss Iraq’s security.

But Saturday’s meeting was the highest-level session between the countries during the Bush administration, which once branded Iran part of an “axis of evil” and has not ruled out military action against Iran because of its nuclear ambitions.

It comes as the Bush administration, in its final months, has told some of its closest allies that the United States was moving forward with a plan to establish an American diplomatic presence in Tehran for the first time since the rupture in bilateral relations.

But for some, it is hard to understand why the Americans have made a diplomatic gesture with Mr. Burns’s participation at this time. America’s negotiating partners, particularly Britain, had wanted an American presence when they traveled to Tehran last month to present an enhanced package of incentives. That moment, officials said, would have been meaningful and more logical.

Instead, Mr. Burns came to the table when the Iranians were giving their reply, and there had never been a strong signal that it was going to be different from the past.

Despite the shift in American willingness to talk, one point of policy clearly has not changed: the Bush administration wants to avoid the impression that it is negotiating with Iran before it suspends its production of enriched uranium, which can be used to make electricity or fuel bombs.

Even the subject of a joint photograph was one of dispute. The only photo accepted by the American side was one with all parties at the table. The Americans objected to the idea of a photo of Mr. Solana and Mr. Jalili at a joint news conference with Mr. Burns and the other participants standing behind them.

Complicating the diplomacy was the fact that before Saturday’s talks, the six powers were not united on a joint strategy on how to proceed. The American delegation had told its partners that Mr. Burns’s appearance was a one-time event and that Iran had two weeks to decide whether to accept the “freeze-for-freeze” formula.

Germany, Russia and China, by contrast, argued that there should be time to explore the negotiating track with Iran.

There were other disagreements among the six powers as well. France and Britain have argued that there should be a precise definition of what the Iranians would have to freeze to open the way to formal talks.

But those disagreements evaporated during the talks with Iran. The six powers presented a united front in pushing the Iranians to give a clear answer on whether they were willing to make the good-faith gesture of halting new nuclear activity to pave the way for formal talks.

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