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Iran ignores deadline on nuclear talks

Instead, Tehran holds talks with key ally Syria as it focuses on shoring up support for its nuclear program.

August 04, 2008|Borzou Daragahi and Ramin Mostaghim | Special to The Times

BEIRUT — Over the weekend, Iran failed to respond to an informal two-week deadline to give a yes-or-no answer to negotiations on dismantling crucial parts of its nuclear program. It was instead busy in a flurry of diplomatic and military activity to bolster its position.

On Saturday and Sunday, Tehran received a Syrian delegation led by President Bashar Assad, an important Iranian ally, in an apparent effort to coordinate diplomatic strategy and fend off any possible U.S. or Israeli attack.

Last week, Iran rallied foreign ministers of the Non-Aligned Movement gathered in Tehran to support its nuclear program. In recent days, Iranian commanders of the elite Revolutionary Guard Corps met at a base outside the capital to plan defensive maneuvers in case of an attack.

On July 19, Iran declined to respond to a proposal backed by the U.S., Europe, Russia and China to begin preliminary talks meant to lead to the eventual dismantling of parts of its nuclear program, especially its uranium enrichment operation. Enriched uranium is used as fuel in nuclear power plants, but at higher concentrations can make a bomb.

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana gave Iran a two-week deadline to agree to the talks or face a renewed drive by the United Nations Security Council for a fourth round of economic sanctions. But pressure on Tehran eased after Russia's foreign minister said last week that he opposed "artificial" deadlines. U.S. State Department officials also backed away from the deadline, saying they hoped for an Iranian response soon and would resume the drive for more sanctions if Iranians rejected the offer.

"It is clear that the government of Iran has not complied with the international community's demand to stop enriching uranium and isn't even interested in trying," said Richard Grenell, spokesman for the United States mission at the United Nations.

"They leave the Security Council no choice but to increase the sanctions, as called for in the last resolution passed."

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Sunday that his country was committed to diplomatic negotiations to resolve the standoff. "We are serious in continuation of fair talks that can produce practical and fruitful results," he told reporters in Tehran.

Iranian officials say they doubt that the nuclear dispute will lead to a military confrontation or even substantive economic sanctions soon. But they are trying to broaden their diplomatic, military and public-relations tools to prepare for any possibility, analysts said.

"The consequences of a possible military confrontation . . . are so heavy that everyone is trying all other options to find a solution," said Saeed Leylaz, an Iranian analyst and newspaper editor. "The Iran-U.S. crisis is spinning out of control. Tehran is willing to buy time in the coming four months to avoid a crisis."

Assad arrived in Tehran on Saturday for what a newspaper close to the Iranian leadership described as "sensitive negotiations" with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Ahmadinejad over Iran's nuclear program, as well as policy in Lebanon, Iraq and Israel.

The Syrian leader also came to relay a request by French President Nicolas Sarkozy that Iran respond favorably to the multinational proposal to start preliminary talks.

"He came here to convey the message of the French president," said an Iranian foreign policy advisor, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the Western media. "It is absurd because, at maximum, he can convey this message that the threat of the West is serious, which already is known to Iran."

Assad was quoted Sunday by Iranian television as calling Iran's enrichment program in pursuit of nuclear energy "an inalienable right."

Still, Assad's visit could precede a softening of the Iranian stance on the enrichment issue, analysts said, with credit going to Damascus rather than to Western pressure.

Diplomats and officials in Tehran say Iran has warmed to a proposal, dubbed "freeze for freeze," to stop adding new uranium-enriching centrifuges in exchange for a freeze on new economic sanctions during a period of pre-negotiations. Despite a statement by Ahmadinejad last month that Iran had more than 5,000 centrifuges running, officials say Iran has not added new centrifuges in months.

"Iran has accepted the idea of 'freeze for freeze,' but it does not make it public because of national pride," said a former Iranian diplomat still close to foreign policy circles.

"Iran does not want to fall in the trap laid by the Europeans. If it says publicly it accepts 'freeze for freeze,' the Europeans would take it one step ahead."

Solana and Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili are scheduled to speak today by phone, the London daily Independent reported Sunday.

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