VIENNA, Austria — Iran's ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency said Friday that his country could suspend uranium enrichment if the United States and Western Europe agreed to acknowledge that its nuclear program was peaceful.
But Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh said there was a "serious confidence gap" between his country and the United States and Western Europe and that he saw little point in trying to "build confidence" with an American administration that had none in his country.
"We don't trust the United States," he told McClatchy Newspapers after the IAEA Board of Governors finished its latest round of talks on Iran's nuclear program. "We could suspend nuclear enrichment. We did it before for two and half years. But it wasn't enough then, and wouldn't be enough now. We will not suspend enrichment again because there is no end to what the United States will demand."
Diplomats said Soltanieh's remarks reflected what he'd been saying in private. "Iran is willing to deal," one said. "But they've made it clear there would have to be a quid pro quo, and they don't believe that's possible." The diplomats said they couldn't be quoted by name because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The Bush administration charges that Iran's nuclear-enrichment program is intended to produce a nuclear weapon, but Iran says its aim is peaceful nuclear energy.
Soltanieh spoke to McClatchy in an angry tone in response to a question on why Iran refuses to respect the U.N. Security Council's demand that it halt its nuclear-enrichment program.
His remarks suggested that Iran might be willing to go farther than it's previously stated in public and that Iran's irritation with the process is growing.
Soltanieh went on to say that no deal is possible because the U.S. has "a hidden agenda," and he hinted that it centered on U.S. support for Israel, the ultimate bogeyman for the Islamic nation.
Mutual distrust between the United States and Iran precedes the confrontation over its nuclear program by decades, extending back to the Islamic Revolution in 1979, which overthrew the U.S.-backed regime of Shah Reza Pahlavi and whose militants seized the American embassy in Tehran and held U.S. diplomats hostage for 444 days.
"Before al Qaida came on the scene, the American boogeyman was Iran," said Magnus Ranstorp, chief scientist at the Swedish Defense College Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies. "This is a huge stumbling block to trusting negotiations today."
The meeting this week at the United Nations compound in Vienna came a week after Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the IAEA, issued a report that both praised and chided the Iranians.
It said that their recent cooperation in a work plan he'd negotiated with Iranian officials far exceeded that of the past two years. But he urged the Iranians to grant nuclear inspectors greater access and to build confidence by suspending uranium enrichment.
This week, the United States, France, Germany and the United Kingdom strongly criticized what Iran had left undone. The Europeans called in a statement for an "immediate suspension of Iranian nuclear activity which poses a proliferation risk." They said that with 3,000 centrifuges up and running, Iran now could produce enough fissile material in one year to make a nuclear weapon.
Experts and diplomats say the Bush administration may have boxed itself in by taking the issue to the U.N. Security Council. Iran reacted by shutting off information about its nuclear activities two years ago, and the administration said it would seek harsher sanctions and refused to rule out military action. Russia and China, however — both with veto power on the Security Council — have been critical of further sanctions.
A Russian statement this week said Iran was "ahead of schedule" in clarifying some of the questions the IAEA had asked and didn't mention the possibility of tougher sanctions. But it called for Iran to suspend uranium enrichment as a path to negotiations and added that while the decision is Iran's, "for a small nation, enrichment isn't economically efficient."
One diplomat said the work-plan report "opened a window for Iran to score big on the international scene. Instead of taking the opportunity, they slammed the window shut."
Other diplomats, though, thought that the first report on the IAEA Work Plan with Iran showed enough cooperation by the Islamic Republic — what some termed "substantial progress, substantial information" — that a grand gesture from the Iranians could have turned opinion more in their favor.
Even Iranian Ambassador Soltanieh's angry words included a message of hope. He wrote to his colleagues : "Since there is no other Board meeting until March 2008, I feel obliged on behalf of my delegation to wish you, other Member States, Director General and his competent staff, a very Mary Christmases and Happy New Year."