Averting an imminent showdown with Western powers, Iranian negotiators here indicated Wednesday that Tehran would back off threats to restart nuclear processing activities in exchange for a promise that it will receive a comprehensive aid proposal from Britain, France and Germany by the end of July.
The agreement, which is tentative until accepted by Iranian leaders in Tehran, would allow both sides to step back, at least temporarily, from threats that could have resulted in a confrontation in front of the United Nations Security Council.
Now, however, the Europeans, who have the backing of the United States, must come up with a package that goes further than previously floated incentives, which the Iranians have rejected.
The proposal also will have to satisfy the Americans, who have been silent partners but key to the discussions. The U.S. has no relations with Iran, but has been in constant touch with the Europeans on the talks.
“Europe recognizes Iran’s right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty without discrimination and Iran reaffirmed its commitment to not seek nuclear weapons,” British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said at the end of the three-hour meeting.
Iran is a signatory to the treaty, which allows members to pursue nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. Iran has said that its nuclear program is designed exclusively for civilian purposes, including to meet the country’s energy needs. However, there are widespread suspicions that Iran is secretly pursuing the ability to manufacture nuclear weapons.
“Proposals were made by both sides,” said Hassan Rowhani, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator and a cleric.
“Our European interlocutors said ... they will give us a detailed proposal by the end of July. This was important to us because all along our conclusion had been that the talks would be prolonged.... We believe that following what was discussed today, we can reach a final objective in a short time.”
The meeting was held at the residence of the Iranian ambassador to the U.N. in a leafy Geneva suburb.
In Washington, a senior U.S. State Department official said the outcome of the session was positive. “What they’ve agreed is exactly what we’ve been talking about,” said the official, who asked to remain anonymous.
The Iranians recently threatened to restart some nuclear processing activities, which they had suspended in November.
The European nations had said that if the Iranians were to take that step, they would ask the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board of governors to refer Iran to the Security Council for punitive action. Iran has consistently sought to avoid a confrontation before the council.
Discussions between Iran and the three European Union countries began in November, when the Europeans agreed to give Iran a package of economic, political, security and technological aid, including a free-trade pact, in exchange for a moratorium on uranium enrichment and conversion activities. Conversion is a step preceding enrichment.
The Europeans and the U.S. want to stop Iran from acquiring the knowledge or technology to manufacture a nuclear weapon.
Wednesday’s agreement would delay the formal offer of aid until after the Iranian presidential election in mid-June and would extend the Iranian freeze on nuclear activities
Iranian officials threatened this month to restart the country’s Esfahan plant, which converts raw uranium yellow cake into hexafluoride gas, the least sensitive stage in the fuel cycle. The gas, however, can later be concentrated in centrifuges to produce highly enriched uranium, which can be used in nuclear weapons. Many experts believe Iran is several years away from the capability to make a nuclear weapon.
At the end of Wednesday’s meeting, attended by French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier and German counterpart Joschka Fischer as well as Straw and Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign affairs minister, the tone and body language of the participants were serious but relieved.
“We have our different positions,” Fischer said. “It’s not easy to bridge the gap, but as long as we have all these commitments, that is important.”
An Iranian diplomat who attended the meeting said he was sure there were rough moments for people on both sides but that they kept talking. “We agreed that this meeting should not involve mutual threats and I didn’t hear any threats from either side,” said the diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous.
Wednesday’s outcome was “very good news,” said Francois Heisbourg, head of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris and an expert on the Iranian nuclear issue. “That’s unexpected. It means the risk of the negotiations breaking down because of the elections in Iran has been put off. It remains to be seen what the Europeans will put on the table at the next meeting.”
Although Iran will expect improved incentives, the Europeans have little more to offer without Washington’s assent, Heisbourg said.
“The Americans will have to look very hard at what carrots can be put on the table,” Heisbourg said.
The Iranians have expressed dismay at the previous offers from the European countries in consultation with the United States, saying they were far from adequate. The offers include used aircraft parts as well as help with entry to the World Trade Organization.
The Europeans have persuaded the Bush administration to lift its embargo on the parts and drop its long-standing objection to Iran joining the trade organization. The WTO’s General Council is scheduled to meet today and Friday.
But the Iranians want far more -- including the right to develop nuclear capability for peaceful means and as many as 10 nuclear reactors for energy generation.
Having reactors would mean access to nuclear fuel, although not the most-enriched uranium used in bombs. The United States fears that once Iran has uranium, it could master the processes for concentrating it into weapons-grade material.
“Iran must not be allowed to perfect the technologies that are associated with the fuel cycle. That’s really what this is about,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday in an interview in Washington with Agence France-Presse, speaking before the Geneva meeting concluded.
She emphasized that the U.S. would refuse to support any EU-Iranian pact that allowed Tehran to proceed with its efforts to complete the nuclear fuel cycle.
Times staff writers Sebastian Rotella in Paris and Tyler Marshall in Washington contributed to this report.