World powers stress diplomacy in Iran standoff

March 8, 2012 - 5:45 PM
Iran Nuclear

This Aug. 13, 2004 satellite image provided by DigitalGlobe and the Institute for Science and International Security shows the military complex at Parchin, Iran, 30 km (about 19 miles) southeast of Tehran. Six world powers urged Iran, Thursday March 8, 2012, to open its Parchin military site to International Atomic Energy Agency perusal, amid reports that Tehran might be cleaning it of evidence of nuclear arms related experiments_a request echoed by other speakers at the 35-nation IAEA board meeting. Concerns about Parchin are high. Diplomats who spoke to The Associated Press on Wednesday based their assessment on new satellite images (not the one shown) of the Iranian military facility they said appeared to show trucks and earth-moving vehicles, indicating a possible attempted cleanup of radioactive traces. (AP Photo/DigitalGlobe - Institute for Science and International Security)

VIENNA (AP) — Three days of protracted negotiations held under the specter of war highlighted the diplomatic difficulties ahead for nations intent on ensuring that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons.

In a statement Thursday that was less than dramatic, six world powers avoided any bitter criticism of Iran and said diplomacy — not war — is the best way forward.

The cautious wording that emerged from a weeklong meeting of the U.N. nuclear agency reflected more than a decision to tamp down the rhetoric after a steady drumbeat of warnings from Israel that the time was approaching for possible attacks on Iran to disrupt its nuclear program.

Indeed, the language was substantially milder than the tough approach sought by Washington and allies Britain, France and Germany at the International Atomic Energy Agency's 35-nation board meeting. Agreement came only after tough negotiations with Russia and China.

That could spell trouble on any diplomatic path ahead.

Russia, China and the four Western nations have agreed to meet with Iran in another effort to seek a negotiated solution. But with East-West disagreements within the group greater than ever, it could be difficult for the six to act in coordination at those talks.

A previous series of talks between the six and Iran ended in failure, the last one more than a year ago in Istanbul, Turkey. But the issue of six-power unity was never tested during those talks, because Tehran refused even to consider discussing concessions on its nuclear program.

That could change as Russian and Chinese irritation grows with what the two consider unwarranted tough and unilateral sanctions recently imposed on Iran by Washington and the European Union. Tehran might try to exploit the rift by offering a compromise that Moscow and Beijing would likely welcome but the West would proclaim meaningless.

Thursday's statement indicated that the West was willing to go some ways to maintain at least a semblance of six-power unity.

It refrained from calling out the Islamic Republic for refusing to cooperate with the IAEA's probe of allegations that it secretly worked on components of a nuclear arms program.

Instead it put the onus both on Iran and the IAEA to "intensify their dialogue" to resolve the four-year standoff. And indirectly countering weeks of Israeli saber-rattling, it emphasized "continued support for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue."

Returning to Jerusalem from intensive talks in Washington, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his government will not allow Iran to obtain atomic bombs but prefers a peaceful solution to the issue

"I hope that Iran chooses to part from its nuclear program peacefully," Netanyahu said, adding, "It is forbidden to let Iran arm itself with nuclear weapons, and I intend not to allow it."

Israel and the U.S. agree that Iran is on a path that could eventually lead to the production of a nuclear weapon, but part ways over urgency: Netanyahu has seemed impatient with President Barack Obama's statements that tough new economic sanctions imposed by the West be given time to work.

Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's chief IAEA delegate, condemned Israel's "continuous threat of attack against Iran's nuclear facilities."

In Tehran, Iran's top leader welcomed comments by Obama advocating diplomacy as a solution in a rare positive signal from the head of a nation that regards Washington as its bitter foe.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, quoted by Iran's state television, praised Obama's statement this week that he saw a "window of opportunity" to use diplomacy to resolve the nuclear dispute.

Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters in Iran, told a group of clerics: "This expression is a good word. This is a wise remark indicating taking distance from illusion."

But Khamenei had criticism for Obama as well. The Iranian leader said the economic sanctions pushed by the U.S. and other nations as a way to get Iran to alter its nuclear program would "lead their calculations to failure."

Asked about Khamenei's remarks, White House spokesman Jay Carney said: "The president's policy toward Iran is focused in a very clear-eyed way on Iranian behavior, certainly not on rhetoric of any kind."

Ahead of the Vienna meeting, Washington and its European partners had hoped to send a firmer signal to Iran than even a tough joint statement would have.

They had sought a six-power resolution demanding compliance with U.N. Security Council demands for Tehran to end uranium enrichment and other programs that could be used for weapons purposes. A resolution passed by the IAEA board automatically goes to the Security Council and could serve as a potential springboard for new U.N. sanctions.

Instead, it took three days of horse trading — and a one-day adjournment Wednesday of the IAEA meeting — to agree on the watered-down text.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton repeated that the United States continues "to believe that we have space for diplomacy ... coupled with very strong pressure in the form of the toughest sanctions the international community has ever imposed."

U.S. chief IAEA delegate Robert Wood said the six nations arrived at "a very good statement after some constructive discussions." But freed of the constraints of unity imposed on the group of six, his statement to the board reflected a much tougher line.

"While we remain committed to a diplomatic resolution to the international community's concerns with Iran's nuclear program ... we will not sit idle while a member state openly flouts its obligations and embarks on a path of deception and deceit," he said.

Iran has steadfastly rejected demands to halt its uranium enrichment, which Washington and its allies worry could be the foundation for a future nuclear weapons program by providing the fissile core of nuclear weapons. Tehran claims it seeks only energy and medical research from its reactors, but it wants full control over the nuclear process from uranium ore to fuel rods.

It has also stonewalled an IAEA probe of suspected clandestine research and development into nuclear weapons for four years, dismissing the allegations as based on forged intelligence from the United States and Israel.

In a possible concession Tuesday, Tehran said agency experts could visit Parchin, a military facility that the IAEA suspects was used for secret atomic weapons work. An IAEA official, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the issue, dismissed the offer as a stalling tactic. IAEA inspectors were refused access to Parchin twice in recent weeks.

Concerns about Parchin are high. All Western statements, as well as the one issued Thursday by the six powers, have called on Iran to grant access to the facility.

Diplomats who spoke to The Associated Press on Wednesday said Iran was trying to clean up the site. They based their assessment on satellite images they said appeared to show trucks and earth-moving vehicles.

Two diplomats said their information reveals that Iran had experimented at the site with a test version of a neutron trigger used to set off a nuclear blast — information not previously made public.

Soltanieh, the Iranian chief delegate to the IAEA, described the diplomats' reports as "a ridiculous and childish story."

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Associated Press writers Noura Maan in Vienna, Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Ian Deitch in Jerusalem and Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington contributed to this report.

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George Jahn can be reached at http://twitter.com/georgejahn