BERLIN – Key European nations warn that Iran is trying to weaken international opposition to its contentious nuclear program by stalling on giving a clear response to terms set by six world powers for negotiations, according to a confidential document obtained Thursday.
"The Iranian goal obviously is to split the international community," said the document, drawn up by Britain, France and Germany, and made available to The Associated Press ahead of a key meeting of the five U.N. Security Council nations plus Germany.
The nations are scheduled to meet in Berlin on Thursday to coordinate joint strategy over Iran's refusal to suspend uranium enrichment.
The European Union's foreign policy chief said in Denmark that he expects to hold nuclear talks Saturday with Iranian nuclear envoy Ali Larijani. Javier Solana did not release the location of the meeting.
The talks are considered a final attempt to see if there is common ground to start negotiations between Iran and the six powers.
Larijani was in Spain on Thursday for talks with Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is also in Spain for talks with Zapatero. It was not immediately known if he and Larijani will meet.
Italian Premier Romano Prodi will meet with Larijani on Friday to discuss the nuclear standoff, the crisis in Lebanon and Iran's role in the region, the premier's spokesman said.
The European assessment of Iran's strategy in the nuclear negotiations is described in a 1 1/2 page document labeled "In Confidence" that was sent to dozens of capitals last week.
It summarizes Iran's response to a six-power offer to Iran dangling the prospect of technical, economic and political rewards if it agrees to suspend enrichment before talks begin and consider a long-term moratorium on the technology, which can be misused to make nuclear arms.
While not specifically threatening U.N. sanctions, it says the Security Council will have to consider "further steps" if Tehran continues to defy the council by refusing to stop enrichment.
The six-power package warned of punishments, including U.N. sanctions, if Tehran does not halt enrichment — something Iran refused to do by an Aug. 31 deadline set by the U.N. Security Council.
Iran's Aug. 22 response to the six-power offer has been kept confidential. But the United States and its allies have described it as unsatisfactory, primarily because of Tehran's refusal to consider freezing enrichment.
Diplomats familiar with the document said it was drawn up by Britain, France and Germany, which are among the six nations that made the June incentives offer, to inform other nations of the substance of Iran's counteroffer and share the Western view that it was inadequate.
"The reply is along the lines of previous Iranian statements in that typically it neither accepts nor rejects outright" the six-power proposal, said the document sent to dozens of capitals last week.
By hinting that it is prepared to resume suspension of uranium enrichment, the document says, Iran's goal "obviously is to split the international community and draw us into a process of talks about talks, on Iranian terms, while making no commitments of its own while continuing with its enrichment programme."
The document described Iran's response as "verbose and complicated, and ambiguous in many places."
Iran promises that it is prepared to discuss the suspension of uranium enrichment "in the course of negotiations but not before," the document said. In addition, Iran demands the "termination" of Security Council involvement in its nuclear file.
Iran's nuclear defiance is the thrust of Thursday's talks in Berlin by U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns and counterparts from the other five powers — Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.
Iran's unyielding stance appears to be based on the calculation that sanctions will be opposed by Russia and China, both veto-wielding Security Council members that have major commercial ties with Tehran.
On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said any sanctions must exclude military force, suggesting Moscow was contemplating the possibility of sanctions but remained opposed to harsh and quick punishment.
Lavrov said the Security Council's recent resolution on the issue holds out the possibility of further measures on Iran such as economic penalties, banning air travel or breaking diplomatic relations, but not the use of armed force.
"This article envisages measures to exert influence on a country that is not cooperating, including economic ones, but it is written unambiguously there that this excludes any kind of forceful measures of influence," ITAR-Tass quoted him as saying.
U.S. and European diplomats have said they are focusing at first on low-level punishment such as travel bans on Iranian officials or a ban on the sale of dual-use technology, to win backing from Russia and China.
More extreme sanctions would be a freeze on Iranian assets or a broader trade ban, but those would likely be opposed by Russia, China and perhaps others, particularly since the trade ban could cut off badly needed oil exports from Iran.
Iran insists it has a right to enrich for generation of nuclear power. But suspicions are growing it wants to develop the technology to enrich uranium to the weapons-grade level for the fissile core of nuclear warheads.