The New York Times, Tehran Ã¢â¬â Iran responded Tuesday to a set of incentives from Europe and the United States aimed at ending its nuclear program, but did not agree to suspend the enrichment of uranium by the end of the month, the West’s primary demand.
In its response, Iran offered “serious talks” over its nuclear activities but did not raise the issue of suspending enrichment by Aug. 31, the deadline established by the United Nations Security Council, Western diplomats said.
“What they have not done is address the key point, whether or not they are going to suspend,” said one senior European official involved in the Iran negotiations. Following traditional protocol, the official and other diplomats spoke only on condition of anonymity.
As European and American diplomats analyzed the 21-page counterproposal on Tuesday, it increasingly appeared that Iran’s efforts to push past the Aug. 31 deadline would be considered unacceptable and that they would be likely to lead to calls for imposing sanctions. The United States, Britain, France and Germany plan to meet Wednesday in New York to discuss the proposal and their response.
John R. Bolton, the United States representative to the United Nations, said Tuesday that Washington was prepared to move rapidly on a new Council resolution calling for economic sanctions.
But the meeting will not include two key Council members, Russia and China, which have been reluctant to punish Tehran harshly. The challenge facing the United States will be to maintain a unified front against Iran while putting together a package of sanctions that have some bite. [Page A6.]
It was not immediately clear how Beijing or Moscow would react to the proposal. Western diplomats have said that the two governments will seize on any indication that Iran is willing to discuss suspension in future negotiations as a reason to water down any sanctions.
Iranian officials said they were offering a “new formula” to resolve the crisis, but did not release any details of their proposal. Nor did Western diplomats. It was clear, however, based on their characterizations, that in broad terms Iran had responded as expected, offering a lengthy, complex and somewhat oblique set of proposals it hoped would lead to future negotiations.
“We always expected a response that’s not white or black, but gray,” said Cristina Gallach, a spokeswoman for Javier Solana, foreign policy chief of the European Union. “But our position can’t be gray.”
The Iranian nuclear conflict has been running along two paths: the West offered economic and political incentives to Tehran if it suspended enrichment, and the Security Council threatened sanctions if Iran failed to suspend by the end of the month.
With Iran’s response, it appeared that both sides remained stuck at the starting line. Iran said, as it has all along, that it would not accept any preconditions for negotiations over the package of incentives. And the West continued to insist that there would be no discussion of the incentives package until Iran suspended enrichment.
“Although the unlawful behavior of the U.N. Security Council cannot be justified, based on the recommendations of Kofi Annan, the secretary general of the United Nations, we prepared our answer with a positive attitude,” said Ali Larijani, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, as he delivered Iran’s response to representatives of Britain, Russia, China, France and Germany here on Tuesday afternoon. The Swiss ambassador to Iran received the proposal on behalf of the United States, which does not have a representative in Tehran.
Mr. Bolton appeared to ignore Iran’s description of its proposal as a springboard for negotiations, instead referring to the document as Iran’s “definitive” response.
“They can either take up the very generous offer that the five permanent members and Germany have extended to them, and if they do, there’s a possibility of a different relationship with the United States and others,” he said. “But if they don’t, we’ve also made it clear that their unwillingness to give up their pursuit of nuclear weapons will result in our efforts in the Security Council to obtain economic sanctions against them.”
Nasser Hadian, a political science professor at Tehran University, said that if the proposal offers concrete details to ensure that Iran does not divert enriched uranium to a weapons program Ã¢â¬â steps like intrusive inspections and real-time monitoring of the nuclear facilities with cameras Ã¢â¬â it is possible that Iran will win some more support from Russia and China.
“It depends on the nature of the package,” Dr. Hadian said.
In the days before Iran’s self-imposed Tuesday deadline to respond to the incentives package, Western diplomats here said they expected that the response would seek to keep negotiations going, and to remain ambiguous on important issues.
Mr. Larijani tried to pre-empt the criticism that Iran was trying to buy time and encouraged the West to resume negotiations as early as Wednesday.
“Despite all the propaganda that Iran is trying to buy time,” he said, Tehran urged the six nations making the offer “to return to the negotiating table as soon as possible to discuss all the issues in the package, including long-term nuclear cooperation, economic and technical cooperation, and also security cooperation in the region, so that we can reach a peaceful understanding in all three areas.”
But Western patience appears to be wearing thin. “It’s very nice of the Iranians to respond, but we don’t feel a compunction to respond to this,” the senior European official said. “We’re not going to dance to the Iranians’ tune. We don’t need to. The headline is that they haven’t addressed the key issue so the Security Council process will continue.”
Iran has already begun to brace for sanctions, calculating that an initial round would be relatively painless. But if the screws tighten, analysts here said, they expect the leadership to look for a face-saving compromise.
Iran sits on some of the largest known oil reserves, but is forced to import more than 40 percent of its gasoline because it does not have the refinery capacity to meet its own needs. Sanctions that block gasoline imports would be extremely painful, analysts here said.
When Iran set the deadline of Aug. 22, the last day of the Iranian month of Mordad, it said the Western proposal was so complex that it needed first to be studied by experts in specific fields like energy, security and economics. But the nuclear issue has also been turned into an important domestic issue, one that has had profound political implications here.
While the government’s policy on the nuclear program has not substantially changed in the last year, its strategy and approach to the West have. Under the previous president, Mohammad Khatami, the government adopted a strategy of confidence building, hoping to convince the West over time that it was working on a peaceful nuclear program.
But as Mr. Khatami ended his second term in office, the clerical and hard-line leadership decided to move toward a more confrontational approach. In June 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president, and shortly after taking office he transformed the issue into a matter of national pride.
Mr. Ahmadinejad has repeatedly said that peaceful nuclear energy was Iran’s “inalienable right,” and in defiance of the West he announced in April that Iran had already enriched uranium Ã¢â¬â and would never stop. His office said Tuesday that he would hold a news conference next week in Tehran to directly address the Aug. 31 deadline.
Throughout Tuesday, Iranian officials offered comments demonstrating their confidence in their country’s position and their disregard for threats from the West.
“We should not define our national interests in accordance with the sort of reaction we might get from the West,” said Ali Akbar Velayati, the foreign affairs adviser to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in an interview with ISNA, the student news agency. “In that case we would be a passive nation.”
Helene Cooper contributed reporting from Washington for this article, and Nazila Fathi from Tehran.