Europeans Seek U.S. Help in Iran Talks

Times Staff Writers

European countries seeking to negotiate an end to Iran’s nuclear enrichment program are asking the Bush administration for more help, saying the United States should offer Tehran new incentives to revive foundering talks, U.S. officials said.

The request for a new U.S. overture, made last week, was viewed as another sign that the talks between Iran and European Union representatives had made little headway since the two sides renewed efforts last fall to reach an agreement.

A U.S. official said the request was vague. Several European governments have argued that successful negotiations with Iran hinge on greater American involvement, including an offer to normalize relations with the Islamic Republic and an assurance that the U.S. will not attack Iran.

Tensions over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, heightened by recent threats and accusations, escalated further Tuesday when Tehran’s foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, said his country was determined to pursue the production of nuclear energy, but not atomic weapons.


“Iran, for its part, is determined to pursue all legal areas of nuclear technology, including enrichment, exclusively for peaceful purposes and has been eager to offer assurances and guarantees that they remain permanently peaceful,” Kharrazi said at a United Nations conference on nuclear nonproliferation.

Enrichment is a process to concentrate uranium, typically through the use of centrifuges. Lower concentrations of uranium can be used as fuel in a nuclear power plant, but at higher levels they can be used as material for an atomic bomb.

The attempt to wring additional incentives from the United States corresponds with a crucial period for the EU-Iran talks. Iranians will vote June 17 in a presidential election. With efforts to master nuclear technology popular among Iranian voters, the Europeans believe that chances for possible compromise by Tehran will be better after the election.

Washington backs the European negotiating effort, but has declined to go beyond incentives already offered by the administration this year, said a senior U.S. official who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly. The administration has said it would support Iran’s application to join the World Trade Organization and would sell the country spare parts for its aging, American-built commercial airline fleet if Tehran agreed in talks with the Europeans to end its quest for uranium enrichment technology.

The U.S. official said the Europeans’ request for additional U.S. incentives sought few specifics and was apparently motivated by a general lack of progress in the talks between Iran and the countries known as the EU3 -- Britain, France and Germany.

“Because things weren’t going well, they wanted more out of us,” the official said. “They would like to turn this from an EU3 to an EU-US4, but that won’t happen. Our approach has not changed.”

The official characterized the discussions as “dispiriting.”

A European official visiting Washington last week said the EU-Iran talks had a “50-50 chance of success.” But, the official added, “we’d enhance these chances if we could add U.S. carrots.”

The U.S. broke diplomatic ties with Iran after militant Iranian students stormed the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held U.S. diplomats hostage for 444 days. Formal relations haven’t been restored.

“The Europeans can give all sorts of economic incentives, but only the United States can provide the security assurances that would make [Iran] think about giving up a nuclear program,” said Joseph Cirincione, an arms control specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Iran argues that provisions of the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty allow it to pursue uranium enrichment technology and contends that its program is purely for the development of nuclear energy. U.S. officials, pointing to Iran’s huge oil reserves and its initial efforts to conceal uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities, believe that Tehran wants to use the technology to produce nuclear weapons.

“There’s no reason for them to have an enrichment [or] reprocessing program,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Tuesday. “We need to see the cessation of all such activities if the international community is ever going to be satisfied that covert nuclear weapons activity is not going on.”

At the U.N. in New York, Iran, in promising Tuesday to continue its pursuit of nuclear technology to produce energy, accused the United States and Israel of posing the greatest threat to international security with their arsenals of nuclear arms. Israel is widely suspected of possessing nuclear weapons, though it has never officially acknowledged it.

Kharrazi said that developing nuclear technology for peaceful purposes was every country’s “inalienable right.” But he denied that his country had a weapons program and said Tehran would continue to allow U.N. inspectors access to its facilities.

His remarks underlined Iran’s statement last weekend that it would soon resume some nuclear activities in defiance of European efforts to halt them. The Iranian stance, a restatement of its long-held position, has been interpreted by some arms control specialists as a negotiating tactic. But it has contributed to growing international concern over Iranian plans.

The U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency, the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, has found no evidence that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, but has criticized the country for concealing its nuclear program.

The United States has taken a much less conciliatory stand. Stephen Rademaker, assistant secretary of State for arms control, on Monday accused Iran of trying to covertly build nuclear weapons and demanded that it dismantle its nuclear facilities.

The Bush administration and its European allies share the goal of preventing Iran from acquiring the ability to produce nuclear weapons but differ in their approaches.

In the wake of revelations three years ago that Tehran had secretly operated a nuclear program for nearly two decades, the U.S. decided against engaging Iran in talks.

However, U.S. efforts to isolate Tehran and bring it before the U.N. Security Council for possible punitive action failed because of a lack of international support.

Facing international criticism and strained transatlantic ties, President Bush switched tactics in February, agreeing to support the EU-Iran talks, but not join them.

Bush has proposed limiting nuclear technology to countries that already have it, because fissile material that can be used for peaceful purposes can be diverted for making arms.

But Iran joined many other countries Tuesday in criticizing the U.S. position.

“It is unacceptable that some intend to limit the access to nuclear technology to an exclusive club of technologically advanced states under the pretext of nonproliferation,” Kharrazi said.

The conflict over how to handle countries on the brink of nuclear power highlights the loopholes widely seen in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

North Korea developed nuclear weapons under the umbrella of the treaty, then withdrew from it, without sanction. China has blocked the Security Council from addressing North Korea’s alleged violation, preferring to keep it within the framework of intermittent six-nation talks, in which Beijing has more influence over its volatile neighbor.

Marshall reported from Washington and Farley from the United Nations.