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Iran...s Freeze on Enrichment Could Wait, France Suggests

By Elaine Sciolino


In an effort to jump-start formal negotiations between six world powers and Iran over its nuclear program, President Jacques Chirac of France suggested on Monday that Iran would not have to freeze major nuclear activities until the talks began.

Over the years, Chirac consistently has taken an extremely hard line against Iran in both public and private. But his remarks in a radio interview could be interpreted as a concession to Iran, whose officials have said they will not suspend their production of enriched uranium as demanded by the U.N. Security Council.

“Iran and the six countries together, we must first find an agenda for negotiations, then start a negotiation,” Chirac told Europe 1 radio. “During this negotiation I propose that on the one hand, the six refrain from referring the issue to the Security Council, and that Iran refrain from uranium enrichment during the duration of the negotiation.”

But, in a sign of how fluid the maneuvering over how to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions has become, Chirac’s comments were just ambiguous enough for multiple interpretations.

In New York for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly, Bush administration officials insisted that the American position has not changed: that United States will not join the talks until Iran suspends uranium enrichment. After reading the text of Chirac’s remarks, a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he did not believe that Chirac had said the United States would sit down to talks until Iran suspends enrichment.

“To tell you the truth, there’s no suggestion being made that we would sit down with Iran before they suspend,” the official said.

The formal position of the six world powers is that Iran must freeze uranium enrichment activities as a condition of the start of negotiations.

What is under discussion, the official and other European diplomats said, is for Javier Solana, the European Union’s chief diplomat, to continue talks with the chief Iranian negotiator, Ali Larijani, about the conditions for suspension. In the meantime, the United States would continue to try to draw up a sanctions resolution in the Security Council.

If Solana and Larijani can agree on conditions for a suspension, American and European diplomats said, the United States could join the talks at the same time that Iran suspended enrichment. That approach, the diplomats said, could be a face-saving way for all sides to pretend they did not make big concessions.

Chirac’s remarks were the first time a leader of one of the six countries — the five permanent members of the Security Council (Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States) and Germany — has suggested that the suspension is not a precondition for talks.

Clearly, Chirac’s remarks took Bush administration officials by surprise, in particular because ever since the six powers made a proposal to Iran on June 1 to provide a package of incentives in return for suspending enrichment, the Americans and the Europeans have been careful to appear unified. Russia and China might have to be dragged along, the thinking went, but the others would hold fast to the American line on sanctions.