VIENNA, Austria—World powers said Thursday that they've agreed on a set of "far-reaching proposals" to entice Iran to suspend its enrichment of uranium, which can be used for nuclear weapons, and to punish Tehran if it refuses.
U.S. diplomats hailed the long-sought agreement as a breakthrough in efforts to stop Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program by peaceful means. But it remained unclear whether Russia and China were willing to agree to tough measures, such as binding sanctions, if the Iranian government rejected the offer.
British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, speaking for the six nations leading the diplomacy over Iran's suspected nuclear weapons effort, called on Iran to suspend its enrichment of uranium, as required by the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, and rejoin negotiations. Iran will receive "significant benefit" if it agrees, she said.
If Iran refuses to suspend uranium enrichment, "further steps would have to be taken in the (U.N.) Security Council," Beckett said.
"There are two paths to be taken. We urge Iran to take the positive path."
Uranium can be enriched to a low level for power plants or to a high level for warheads. Iran says its nuclear work is aimed at generating civilian electrical power, not nuclear arms.
However, the IAEA said in February that it couldn't confirm whether Iran's nuclear program was for peaceful purposes because it was kept hidden for 18 years. Iran also had failed to disclose key aspects of the project, including its purchases of weapons-related information from an international smuggling ring.
In addition to demanding a suspension of Iran's uranium enrichment project, the IAEA called on Iran to answer all outstanding questions and suspend construction of a research reactor.
The six countries—the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany—agreed not to publicly release details of the diplomatic carrots and sticks being offered until they're formally presented to Iran.
European diplomats have said that the proposals include such rewards as help with civilian nuclear power and resumed civilian aircraft sales, along with sanctions such as a freeze on Iranian officials' financial assets.
"We are very satisfied by the results of today's meetings here in Vienna," said U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns. "We consider this a step forward."
But the envoys left the impression that, after months of diplomacy, they again had papered over strong differences about punishing Iran if it continues its suspected nuclear weapons work.
A senior aide to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that the six nations had agreed on a "menu" of potential sanctions on Iran. But the aide, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly, acknowledged that there would be debates over which sanctions to use and when.
In an effort to push Moscow and Beijing to agree to tougher measures, Rice announced Wednesday that the United States would join talks with Iran if it agrees to international demands.
It seems doubtful that Iran will agree to the preconditions for negotiations, which include halting work on centrifuges that can refine uranium.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Thursday that Tehran was open to dialogue, but without preconditions.
A second senior U.S. official said that initial reaction was expected and that Washington didn't consider it a final answer.
Iran will be given several weeks to respond to the offer, the official said.
In Washington, President Bush said he'd spoken with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Hu Jintao about the revised U.S. strategy.
"The best thing for the Iranians to understand is that if . . . they continue their obstinance, if they continue to say to the world, `We really don't care what your opinion is,' then the world is going to act in concert," Bush said.
In her brief remarks, Beckett made no mention of potential sanctions against Iran, instead stressing the benefits that Iran might see if it negotiates. For starters, she said, the nations would halt pending action against Iran in the U.N. Security Council.
U.S. officials said the failure to mention sanctions didn't mean that they hadn't been agreed upon. Rather, they said, Rice and her colleagues had agreed to stress the incentives for Iran in hopes of increasing the chances that Tehran will accept the proposal.
Along with Rice and Beckett, the diplomats who met here were foreign ministers Sergei Lavrov of Russia, Philippe Douste-Blazy of France, Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany, and Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo.
The second senior official said that the five- to six-page document calls on Iran to stop uranium and enrichment processing, which would be verified by the IAEA.
A new negotiating forum with Iran would be created, with the United States, Russia and possibly China joining the three European countries, which have conducted previous nuclear talks with Iran.
Diplomats and news reports have said that Iran will be offered a dialogue about security in the Persian Gulf, access to uranium for power generation that is enriched outside of Iran, and other trade and economic benefits.
The incentives also included the formation of an international consortium to construct advanced light-water power reactors, from which bomb-making material is very difficult to extract, according to U.S. and European officials.
The menu of possible sanctions ranges from modest measures such as travel and visa bans on Iranian officials to embargoes on petroleum products shipped to Iran and an arms embargo. Russia has particularly resisted the latter.
Also proposed were restrictions on foreign investments and a bar on Iranian membership in the World Trade Organization, U.S. and European officials said.
A Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the diplomacy, said the final package wasn't expected to differ radically from drafts that European officials have circulated in recent days.
(Knight Ridder correspondent Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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