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Europe Set for Nuclear Talks with Iran

September 12, 2006

Daniel Dombey, Gareth Smyth and Guy Dinmore, The Financial Times Sept 12, 2006

Europe is poised to compromise on Iran’s nuclear programme, in a step that could break the year-long stand-off over Tehran’s atomic ambitions.

A deal, floated by Tehran at a weekend meeting in Vienna, would rein in the most sensitive part of the programme as soon as formal negotiations began with the west. In response, the European Union is watering down its insistence that a suspension of enrichment activities must come before talks. But European diplomats stress that they will require Iran to allow United Nations inspectors to carry out spot-checks on its nuclear facilities to ensure that the Islamic republic has kept its side of the bargain.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, appears to have thrown his weight behind Tehran’s new proposals, which would suspend uranium enrichment for up to two months once negotiations began. Enrichment can be used to produce both nuclear fuel and weapons grade material.

The remaining issue of nuclear inspections will be at the centre of a meeting between Javier Solana, European Union foreign policy chief, and Ali Larijani, Iran’s senior nuclear security official, scheduled for Thursday. Both sides said the two men’s previous encounter, at the weekend, was “constructive”.

A deal could pave the way for formal talks with the western powers and the first top-level contact between Tehran and the US since the 1979 revolution. “The dynamic has changed,” said a European diplomat. “The key is the inspectors.”

But the compromise on offer would be hard for Washington to accept, raising the possibility that the US and Europe could be split on the issue. Washington would be unhappy with any suspension that halted enrichment only for two months, since the United Nations Security Council has already demanded as a matter of course that Iran halt uranium enrichment.

The US said on Tuesday it was not aware of any Iranian proposal to suspend. But some European diplomats warned that the US would be “isolated” if it held out against Tehran’s initiative to halt enrichment work if talks got under way.

Tehran’s formal proposals refer to the possibility of “suspension of enrichment activities by Iran through negotiations”.

The Iranian document also envisages that Iran could “consider voluntary steps towards implementation of the Additional Protocol”, an extension to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty that would give UN staff the right to carry out snap inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The document also seeks to confront fears in the west that Iran could, at a later date, leave the NPT and legally develop nuclear weapons.

Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, said on Tuesday Washington would continue its consultations on the text of a UN sanctions

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