VIENNA, Austria – France and the chief U.N. nuclear inspector added their weight on Monday to calls for a negotiated end to the standoff over Tehran's refusal to freeze uranium enrichment, while senior EU and Iranian officials planned to meet on the impasse later in the day.
Warning against U.N. sanctions, Iranian Vice President Reza Aghazadeh said that his country would respond to such "hostile action" by cutting international inspections of its nuclear program.
As Tehran issued the threat, both French President Jacques Chirac and Mohamed ElBaradei, the chief of the International Atomic Energy agency, urged it and six world powers to talk about concerns that the Islamic republic was seeking to make an atomic bomb.
On the diplomatic front, meanwhile, a European official said senior EU and Iranian negotiators planned to meet in New York to try and establish enough common ground for negotiations. The meeting would be between Robert Cooper, a top aide to EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, and Javed Vaidi, the deputy to Ali Larijani, Iran's leading nuclear negotiator.
Those talks — a repeat of contacts last week in Geneva — are meant to lead to direct talks between Solana and Larijani, said the official, who asked for anonymity in exchange for sharing confidential information with The Associated Press.
Both Solana and Larijani described two previous meetings in Vienna earlier this month as encouraging, and members of delegations familiar with their outcome said Tehran had floated the idea of a temporary enrichment freeze.
The official said that — depending on the progress of further EU-Iran contacts — senior officials of Britain, France and Germany — part of the six-power alliance trying to entice Iran into stopping its enrichment activities — could meet with Larijani later this week.
Those meetings, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, could yield enough progress for the United States, Russia and China to join in later, said the official.
The United States refuses to meet with Tehran until it complies with a Security Council demand that it suspend enrichment before the start of any formal negotiations with the six-power alliance. Iran up to now has said it is only ready to consider such a freeze once talks begin, and there are hopes that could happen once formal contacts are made with the Europeans, allowing the Americans to participate.
The U.N. Security Council has threatened to move to sanctions unless Iran suspends enrichment, which can be used both to generate power and to make the core of nuclear warheads.
Chirac, in his comments Monday, said any Security Council action should be suspended during talks if Iran stopped all enrichment activity.
Concerns about Iran's nuclear intentions dominated statements at the opening session Monday of the 140-nation International Atomic Energy Agency conference, with Japan, the United States, the European Union and others urging Tehran to comply with the Security Council demand that it freeze enrichment.
"We believe it is their intention to make a nuclear weapon," U.S. Secretary of Energy Samuel W. Bodman told reporters outside the meeting in Vienna.
Inside, ElBaradei, the IAEA chief, said negotiations between Tehran and the six-country alliance offering rewards if Iran freezes enrichment could serve to lessen skepticism "about the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program."
Iran's defiance of the U.N. Security Council demand has led the United States to press for quick movement on sanctions even while the European Union tries to persuade Tehran to accept the offer to negotiate.
Iran argues that it has a right to enrichment under the Nonproliferation Treaty. It says it wants to develop its enrichment program only to generate energy.
Aghazadeh said his country was "ready for negotiations and political compromise," while suggesting that international demands that it suspend its enrichment program were an effort to "intimidate and threaten Iran."
Alluding to the threat of U.N. sanctions, he warned: "Any hostile action by the Security Council would lead to limitation of cooperation" with IAEA inspectors trying to establish whether Tehran is trying to make nuclear arms.
Further restrictions would likely effectively end any outside view of Iran's activities. The IAEA has complained already that restrictions on its probe of the Islamic republic's nuclear program have stalemated its investigations over the past year.