TEHRAN, Iran – A top hard-line cleric on Friday came out against a Western incentive package aimed at persuading Iran to suspend uranium enrichment, reflecting conservative pressure on the government to reject the offer.
It was not immediately clear if Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati's comments in any way represented the Iranian government. Jannati is the head of the powerful Guardian Council, a constitutional watchdog arbitrating between the parliament and the government. He is not considered a government official.
Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in all state matters, has overruled hard-liners previously in the nuclear dispute.
"The package they have presented is a package [that is] good for them. It's not good for Iran," Jannati said in his Friday prayer sermon.
The European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, presented the package to Iran on Tuesday. Its contents have not been made public, but diplomats said the package includes economic rewards and a provision for some U.S. nuclear technology if Iran halts enriching uranium.
Together with Germany, the five veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council — the United States, France, Britain, China and Russia — have only demanded that Iran suspend uranium enrichment, and not permanently halt it as an initial condition for negotiations.
The offer, however, also contains the implicit threat of U.N. sanctions if Iran remains defiant.
In Paris, French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair met Friday to discuss international efforts to stem Iran's nuclear program. Afterward, Chirac declared that the international community "cannot accept" Iran's nuclear program, because it could lead to the development of nuclear arms.
Blair said he agreed but also expressed optimism about "the way things have changed in the past couple of weeks to get a diplomatic solution to this."
"There's a better chance" now of finding a way out that would satisfy the international community and respect Iran's rights, he said.
Iran's initial reaction to the package was encouraging. But Tehran has said it will only announce its position after carefully studying the package. Solana said he expects a reply within "weeks."
Jannati said Iran must continue enriching uranium.
"We have to maintain enrichment to the level of 3.5 to 5 percent. They have no choice but to accept it," Jannati added. Uranium enriched to this level is used in nuclear reactors to produce electricity. It needs to be enriched to more than 90 percent for use in a warhead.
Tehran is under intense international pressure to accept the deal in exchange for putting on hold a uranium enrichment program that the West fears could lead to the creation of nuclear weapons.
Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, has said the proposals had "positive steps" but that talks were needed to clear up ambiguities. Iran promised to study the proposals seriously, but gave no timeframe for a response.
In a major policy shift, the United States agreed last week to join France, Britain and Germany in talks with Iran, provided Tehran suspends all suspect nuclear activities. Tehran has welcomed direct talks with Washington, but rejected any preconditions.