PARIS – France's foreign minister said Wednesday that Iran must suspend uranium enrichment if it wants to return to the negotiating table and try to end the international dispute over its contested nuclear program.
Philippe Douste-Blazy declined to make any specific comments about Iran's counterproposal to a Western nuclear incentives package, saying the document was long, complex and merited further study.
Few details of Iran's response have been released, but Tehran has apparently refused to suspend uranium enrichment — the West's key demand.
At a news conference, Douste-Blazy said, "the door is still open" for negotiations. But he added: "The Iranians know the rules of the game — first, they must suspend sensitive nuclear activities."
The foreign minister said he had taken note that Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, was prepared to negotiate with the countries that proposed the incentives package.
"I want to point out again that France is available to negotiate, and I recall that, as we have always said — and as Mr. Larijani knows very well — a return to the negotiating table is linked to the suspension of uranium enrichment," Douste-Blazy said after a meeting with his Israeli counterpart.
France, Germany and Britain have led months of talks on behalf of the 25-nation European Union amid suspicions that Iran's civilian nuclear program is aimed at producing nuclear weapons — not electricity as Tehran insists.
Douste-Blazy said France had asked for a meeting with its European partners, particularly with Germany and Britain, and with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
In June, the five permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany handed Iran a package of incentives aimed at securing guarantees that the country's nuclear program will only be used for peaceful energy generation.
On Tuesday, Iran's top nuclear negotiator hand-delivered his government's response to ambassadors of Britain, China, Russia, France, Germany and Switzerland, which represents U.S. interests, nine days before a U.N. Security Council deadline for Iran to halt uranium enrichment or face economic and political sanctions.
Larijani refused to disclose Tuesday whether the response — more than 20 pages long — included an offer to suspend uranium enrichment. Uranium enriched to low levels can be used as fuel in nuclear reactors to generate electricity, but further enrichment makes it suitable for a nuclear bomb.
The semiofficial Fars news agency reported, however, that Iran had rejected calls to suspend "nuclear activities" — or uranium enrichment — and "instead has offered a new formula to resolve the issues through dialogue."
The state-run television also quoted Larijani as telling the diplomats Iran "is prepared as of Aug. 23rd (Wednesday) to enter serious negotiations" with the countries that proposed the incentives package.