VIENNA, Austria – Top European and Iranian officials sought Saturday to save a deal committing Tehran to freezing uranium enrichment (search) programs, which can make nuclear weapons. But Iran's insistence on exempting key equipment hurt hopes of agreement before a key U.N. meeting reconvenes next week.
The squabble over Iran's interpretation of its deal with the European Union to freeze all activities linked to uranium enrichment stalled an International Atomic Energy Agency (search) board meeting, which was adjourned Friday until Monday.
That was meant to give the Iranian government time to approve a total freeze of the program — which can produce both low-grade nuclear fuel and weapons-grade material for the core of nuclear warheads (search) — and for delegates to decide on further steps in policing Tehran's nuclear activities.
But in Tehran, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi told reporters Saturday that Iran (search) still held the view that it had a right to exempt about 20 centrifuges from the agreement, despite contrary views from the European Union.
Iran says it wants to run the centrifuges purely for research, something Kharrazi insisted was not banned by a Nov. 7 agreement worked out with Germany, France and Britain on behalf of the European Union.
"The centrifuges will work under International Atomic Energy Agency supervision and will be for research purposes only," he told reporters.
The meeting was adjourned to give time for a formal Iranian response by letter to the IAEA on whether the Tehran government accepts a full suspension that includes the 20 centrifuges.
EU delegates to the Vienna meeting said discussions continued Saturday by phone between British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and Hassan Rowhani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council and his country's top point man on nuclear matters.
But they said the Europeans would not budge on insisting on a full freeze that included the centrifuges.
As the board meeting awaited a formal Iranian response, France, Germany and Britain toned down the language of proposed resolution they drafted, in attempts to entice Tehran to sign on to full suspension.
The confidential draft, made available to The Associated Press, weakened language on how any freeze would be monitored by the agency.
It authorizes IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei to "pursue his investigations" into remaining suspicious aspects of Iran's nuclear activities over the past two decades.
But instead of mandating him to "report without delay" to the board if there are violations, it says only that he should "inform" board members of irregularities.
But an EU official told the AP that Tehran's refusal to drop demands to exempt equipment from the enrichment suspension could prompt a much harsher resolution that could include the threat of Security Council action.
Iran was one of three countries singled out by President Bush as part of an "axis of evil." The others were North Korea and Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
Western delegates to the meeting said the United States — which insists Tehran is seeking to make weapons and belongs before the U.N. Security Council— was unhappy with the draft. "The only good deal is one that's verifiable," Bush said Friday, reflecting skepticism about he proposed resolution.
Kharrazi, however, suggested that even the milder language was too tough for Iran.
"There are still provisions in the resolution we don't agree with," he said.
Delegates from EU countries at the meeting said that if Iran did not give in by Monday, the meeting could be adjourned and a new date set for fresh consultations on the board's plan of action — and a new resolution.
Anticipating that Iran would honor the Nov. 7 deal on full suspension, the original proposed resolution drafted by the three European countries had already been relatively mild, taking much of the heat off Iran after more than 1 1/2 years of IAEA scrutiny.
But Iran came to Thursday's opening day of the meeting with demands that it be allowed to operate the 20 centrifuges — which spin gas into enriched uranium.