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New threats and overtures

Times Staff Writer

U.S. and other leading diplomats prepared Monday to consider possible new sanctions in the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program, even as Iran’s top nuclear negotiator again signaled that Tehran would be willing to engage in “constructive and logical” negotiations with Washington.

As representatives of the five United Nations Security Council members plus Germany met here in the wake of Iran’s latest refusal to halt its uranium enrichment efforts, there were signs that the Islamic Republic’s proposal to cap such enrichment at very low levels may be winning some support in Europe.

But strong opposition from the U.S. and Britain to anything less than a full suspension makes a deal at this point unlikely, said analysts and diplomats familiar with the issue, and most were predicting a gradual ratcheting up of U.N. sanctions and a continuing impasse.

Iranian officials “have made a series of miscalculations of how united the international community is,” a British diplomat, speaking under standard diplomatic protocol of anonymity, said as envoys from the six nations met behind closed doors at the British Foreign Office. The meeting was triggered by Iran’s failure to comply with a Security Council resolution two months ago that ordered Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program by Feb. 21.

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“They’re facing quite a bit of international pressure to get to the bottom of what they want to do and why they want to do it,” he said. “To get back to a negotiated solution to realize long-term [nuclear] activities, we want you to stop your enrichment activities now, and once that happens and is verified, we’ll open up opportunities to have a renewed negotiation framework. But we can’t have it the other way around.”

Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, indicated Tehran’s long-standing willingness to hold negotiations as long as there are no preconditions requiring an end to its enrichment program before talking.

“If the United States presents a request for negotiations through the official channels and it appears that these negotiations are constructive and logical, we are ready to examine this request with a positive eye,” Larijani told Iran’s official news agency.

Iranian analysts said Tehran was hoping to win European support for an offer to cap enrichment at 4%, a level sufficient to manufacture nuclear fuel for power plants, which Iran says is the goal of its nuclear program. The U.S. and other nations, which fear Iran is gearing up to build nuclear weapons, believe the technology to enrich these low levels of uranium could eventually be expanded to manufacture weapons-grade uranium, which requires enrichment levels of 85% and greater.

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One Iranian source familiar with the negotiations who was interviewed last week in Tehran said privately that Iran might be willing to unilaterally impose a 4% cap on enrichment. In exchange, he said, Iran would expect the U.S. to push through a new U.N. sanctions resolution with no real teeth, as a means of allowing Tehran and Washington to defuse their confrontation without either side appearing to back down.

“Practical measures like this are much more effective than rhetoric,” said the source, one of a number of reformists who have broken with hard-liners in the government and advocate a negotiated solution to the standoff.

“We are willing to do a lot more than we will announce,” he added. “But we need to maintain a full fuel cycle [producing nuclear fuel], or what is the point?”

Over the weekend, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad emphasized his nation’s determination to press ahead with its nuclear program, which he likened to a train. “We dismantled the rear gear and brakes of the train and threw them away some time ago,” he declared.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in response, said that the Iranians “don’t need a reverse gear. They need to stop and then we can come to the table and we can talk about how to move forward.”

Those comments appeared to encourage the amenable position indicated by Larijani’s comments Monday.

Increasingly, sources who monitor the negotiations say, there are signs that some nations involved, perhaps including France, Germany, Russia and China, are moving toward the view that a 3.5% cap on enrichment, combined with highly intrusive monitoring mechanisms, may be the only feasible end to the standoff.

“I believe the international community will not resort to any tough sanctions in a situation when Iran seemingly shows willingness to accommodate it,” Sergei Karaganov, chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, a Moscow think tank, told Russia’s Interfax news agency. “Iran is behaving quite constructively, although what is happening looks more like a cat-and-mouse game.”

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The British diplomat said the mainstream European view remained that Iran should comply with the existing Security Council resolution, which mandates a halt to enrichment. As for any proposal for a compromise, he said, “It would be wrong to conclude that this is an acceptable position for the [European Union], though you may hear some voices within the EU advocating it.”

U.S. negotiators are said to be opposed to either a 3.5% or 4% cap. “I cannot imagine that the current [U.S.] administration would go along with the idea of Iran having an indigenous enrichment capability on its own soil,” said Shannon Kile, a nonproliferation expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Amid little support for a dramatic escalation in sanctions, diplomats said measures under consideration would include a weapons embargo, banking sanctions and travel bans for Iranian officials connected to the nuclear program.

An idea likely to win support would be to broaden the current ban on supplying equipment to the nuclear program to include hundreds of affiliates and subsidiaries of Iran’s main nuclear operations, analysts said.

“What we think should happen is a new U.N. Security Council resolution ... or new incremental steps ... that would increase the diplomatic pressure on Iran,” U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.

British officials sought to downplay reports that the U.S. was laying the groundwork for a military strike on Iran. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s spokesman said Blair had no knowledge of any intended airstrikes.

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kim.murphy@latimes.com

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