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Iran, negotiators signal progress in nuclear talks

Thursday, April 26, 2007

ANKARA, Turkey -- Senior Iranian and Western envoys signaled Wednesday that they may have made progress in trying to break a deadlock over Tehran's defiance of a U.N. demand to suspend uranium enrichment, saying they planned to meet again in two weeks.

In announcing the additional talks, neither European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana nor Ali Larijani, Iran's top international negotiator, revealed details of their two meetings Wednesday, including a previously unscheduled dinner session.

But an official based in a European capital said the two touched on having discussions of what would constitute a suspension. A more flexible definition of a freeze acceptable to both sides is "the key issue," said the official, who was briefed on the day's talks.

There was also mention of a "double time out" -- a simultaneous freeze of Iranian atomic activities in exchange for a commitment not to impose new U.N. sanctions, said the official, who agreed to tell The Associated Press about the private talks only if not quoted by name.

Both Solana and Larijani were upbeat after their meetings.

"We will have some talks tomorrow and in two weeks," Larijani told reporters. He described the discussions as "pleasant."

Solana spoke of a "very constructive dinner," adding that talks "will continue tomorrow and in the coming weeks also."

Government officials outside Turkey had told AP before the meeting in Ankara that the six powers negotiating with Iran -- the United States, China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany -- might be willing to allow Iran to keep some of its uranium enrichment program intact, instead of demanding it be dismantled.

But all emphasized the meeting was preliminary and meant only to establish if there was enough common ground for further talks that could lead to the resumption of formal negotiations.

The "double time out" concept is supported by the chief of the U.N. atomic watchdog agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, and is part of a confidential document shared Wednesday with AP.

The one-page document, based on a Swiss initiative, proposes that during such a double-moratorium "Iran will not develop any further its enrichment activities" and the six powers will not introduce "any additional U.N. resolutions and sanctions."

Diplomats said the document was opposed by the United States, Britain and France, but said it could nonetheless serve as the basis of a later agreement leading to formal negotiations.

Solana was expected to brief Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice next week, when he attends an EU-U.S. summit in Washington, as well as the foreign ministers of the other five powers. They, in turn, were likely to set ground rules for his next meeting with Larijani.

Iran says it is running more than 1,300 centrifuge machines to enrich uranium at its underground facility at Natanz.

Its ultimate goal is to have 50,000 centrifuges. That would be enough to supply fuel for what Tehran says is a planned network of atomic reactors to generate electricity -- or material for a full-scale nuclear weapons program.

The U.S. might accept allowing a limited number of centrifuges to remain assembled in series, but not running, one diplomat said. Iran, he said, would likely push for keeping the machines operating, although perhaps not producing enriched uranium.

The six powers also want to reduce the number of hooked-up centrifuges to less than 1,000.

The officials who talked with AP -- some of them diplomats, others government officials based in their capitals -- are familiar with the discussions on Iran or specialize in nuclear nonproliferation. All insisted on speaking anonymously because the talks are sensitive.

With agreement to strive for a new definition of enrichment, Larijani and Solana may be able to sidestep the issue that for months has thwarted the resumption of negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, the officials said.

Iran's defiance of a U.N. Security Council demand to suspend all activities linked to enrichment has led to two sets of sanctions against the country.

Iran argues the sanctions are illegal, saying it has the right to enrich uranium for use in power-generating reactors under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Iranian officials say that is the only purpose of the program, disputing suspicions they are trying to develop atomic bombs.

But the United States and others say Iran's past suspicious nuclear activities, including a program that Tehran kept secret for nearly two decades, set the country apart from others that have signed the treaty.

September talks between Solana and Larijani foundered over the same issue. Solana demanded Iran dismantle not only its fledging enrichment efforts but all linked aspects, including assembling centrifuges for enrichment and facilities to house such plants. Iran refused.

Earlier negotiations last year between Iran and the three European powers broke down when Iran refused to suspend enrichment in exchange for a package of economic and political inducements, including help in developing a peaceful nuclear program.


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