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Rice says Iran stalling on nuclear freeze proposal

July 22, 2008|Ramin Mostaghim and Borzou Daragahi | Special to The Times

TEHRAN — U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday dismissed Iran's response to a proposed solution on Tehran's nuclear program in Geneva over the weekend as "small talk" meant to buy time. She warned that new sanctions would be forthcoming if Iran did not comply with international demands to halt or slow its production of enriched uranium.

Rice, speaking to reporters in Ireland, said that U.S., European and United Nations Security Council sanctions on Iran's energy and banking sectors would be tightened if Iran did not agree to stop expanding its production of enriched uranium, which can be used to produce electricity or, if highly enriched, fissile material for a bomb.

The Bush administration broke with its long-standing policy of refusing to engage with Iran until it halts enrichment by dispatching Undersecretary of State William J. Burns to the Geneva talks.

At the meeting, Iran did not give a yes-or-no answer to the proposed "freeze-for-freeze" option in which world powers would stop pressing for new sanctions during a six-week period of pre-negotiations if Tehran agreed to stop adding new uranium-enriching centrifuges during the same period.

Flustered American, European, Russian and Chinese diplomats gave Iran a two-week deadline to respond positively to the offer or face economic sanctions as early as late August.

"We are in the strongest possible position to demonstrate that if Iran does not act, then it is time to go back to that track," Rice was quoted as saying about sanctions. "The main thing is we will have to start considering what we do in New York," the headquarters of the United Nations and the Security Council.

Rice's comments were the harshest yet about the meeting Saturday and could push energy prices higher on worries of increased tensions in the oil-rich Persian Gulf region. U.S., Israeli and Iranian officials have repeatedly painted dire scenarios if the crisis over Iran's nuclear program escalates to a military confrontation. Rice was on her way to the gulf to meet with Burns and leaders of pro-U.S. Arab nations to discuss Iran.

Nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, who represented Iran at Saturday's talks, gave a more upbeat assessment of the meeting as he arrived in Tehran on Monday. He said no one pressed Iran on suspension and downplayed the two-week deadline.

"What happened in Geneva was some discussions about the two sides' approaches to the nuclear talks and their timing," he told reporters, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency. "They presented an offer for the resumption of nuclear talks, and we had also an initiative to this end. The two sides are expected to consider the issue for two weeks and comment about it."

On Sunday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad described the meeting as a success. "Any negotiation that takes place is a step forward," Ahmadinejad told reporters, according to IRNA. "Yesterday's negotiation is regarded as one of these forward-moving negotiations."

But Rice drew a gloomier picture Monday. She called Jalili's lengthy presentation "meandering" and frustrating to all the diplomats present.

"We expected to hear an answer from the Iranians but, as has been the case so many times with the Iranians, what came through was not serious," she told reporters.

"It's time for the Iranians to give a serious answer," she said. "They can't go and stall and make small talk about culture, they have to make a decision. People are tired of the Iranians and their stalling tactics."

Some Iranian officials hailed the U.S. diplomatic presence at the meeting as a victory for Tehran.

"The shift in U.S. diplomacy has created a very good opportunity for Iran, and we should do our best to make use of it," Hassan Rowhani, a mid-ranking cleric who served as Iran's top nuclear negotiator during the presidency of reformist Mohammad Khatami, told reporters Sunday.

Alaeddin Boroujerdi, a hard-line lawmaker, said the White House sent Burns to the meeting to avoid isolation. "It was a success for Iran and a setback for the United States," he said Sunday, according to IRNA.

But Rice on Monday downplayed any signs of diplomatic overtures to Iranian officials, including whispers that Washington was interested in opening a consular office in Tehran. "We are always looking for ways to relate to the Iranian people and to make it easier for them to relate to us," she said.

Burns' attendance Saturday bolstered the U.S. argument to its allies that it was eager to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis, Rice said, suggesting the high-level U.S. presence was a onetime event.

"I think we have done enough to demonstrate that the United States is serious and to assure our partners that we are serious and to show the Iranians that we are serious," she said. "We will see what Iran does in two weeks, but I think the diplomatic process now has a new kind of energy to it."

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daragahi@latimes.com

Mostaghim is a special correspondent and Daragahi a Times staff writer.

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