VIENNA, Austria – Six world powers abandoned attempts Tuesday to issue a joint statement criticizing Iran's nuclear defiance after China and Russia refused to endorse U.S.-backed tough language, diplomats said.
The split, at a 35-nation meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency's board, reflected indecision on how to react to Tehran's weekend suggestion that it might temporarily suspend uranium enrichment — but only on its own terms.
Russia and China have both signed off on U.N. sanctions as a way to punish Iran for its refusal to freeze uranium enrichment, which was first requested and then demanded by the U.N. Security Council. Russia and China are both permanent council members and part of the six-nation coalition trying to pressure Tehran to give up enrichment.
Both, however, have resisted U.S.-led efforts to move to sanctions quickly, despite the expiry of an Aug. 31 deadline on Iran to freeze work on developing the technology, which can be used to help make nuclear arms. Instead, they favor continued negotiations with Tehran.
Diplomats accredited to the IAEA, who demanded anonymity in exchange for sharing confidential information with The Associated Press, said Iran's readiness to consider a temporary enrichment freeze appears to have exacerbated differences over U.N. sanctions.
Iran's offer for a freeze of up to two months was unofficial and tentative, made during talks between EU top foreign policy official Javier Solana and Ali Larijani, Tehran's senior nuclear negotiator and revealed by officials from delegations familiar with the outcome of those talks.
Expanding on the Iranian overture Tuesday, those same officials told the AP that Tehran was only willing to freeze enrichment temporarily once it begins talks with the six powers that are meant to defuse the nuclear crisis. The six are formally demanding a stop to enrichment before such talks.
The IAEA's chief U.S. delegate, Gregory L. Schulte, said America welcomed "the open channel" Solana had established, but emphasized that Iran had yet to make a formal offer on freezing enrichment.
"We would like very much to hear ... that Iran is suspending," Schulte told the AP. "But in the meantime, the intention is to move forward with the (Security Council) sanctions package."
Still, the failure of the six powers to come up with a common Iran statement at the board meeting reflected that some preferred to wait on tough punishment until Iran offered more details about its suggestion.
"There was too much talk of the Security Council and sanctions, and the Russians and Chinese were unwilling to go along," one of the diplomats said referring to the differences over attempts to draft a common text.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suggested Monday that Washington still wanted suspension before talks, telling reporters: "The question is, are they prepared to suspend verifiably so that negotiations can begin."
The six-power talks are aimed at persuading Iran to agree to a long-term moratorium on enrichment. But Tehran has said it would not give up its right to the full range of nuclear technology and expertise, including enrichment, which it says it needs to develop to meet future nuclear power needs.
Still, Tehran's readiness to consider even a temporary pause is significant because it could de-escalate the nuclear standoff if the six powers agree that Iran's terms on enrichment and other conditions it set out in the weekend Vienna talks are acceptable for a start to negotiations.
Iran's oil minister, Kazem Vaziri Hamaneh, told reporters at an OPEC conference in Vienna on Tuesday that progress in talks between Iran and the EU had eased the crisis.
"Many points are now clear," Hamaneh said. "I don't see a standoff" any longer.
The United States has led the drive to haul Iran before the United Nations Security Council to face economic or other sanctions if it does not roll back its nuclear program. Slow diplomatic work to do that began after Iran missed the Aug. 31 deadline.
The West, and the U.S. in particular, says that pause is essential to prevent Tehran from gaining ground toward a weapon if that is their hidden aim. Iran voluntarily did suspend uranium activities during two years of negotiations with European nations, but those talks fell apart last year.
The latest offer, with the added inducement of face-to-face talks with Iran's old enemy the United States, would give trade, aid and political benefits to Iran if it scales back its program and answers the West's concerns. Iran would still be able to develop civilian nuclear power.
The diplomatic coalition against Iran has appeared ragged at times, but so far has held together. The issue may finally be at a turning point if the Security Council takes up sanctions, a step that not only Russia and China but some European allies of Washington are reluctant to take.