PARIS – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice maintained a firm line Sunday against efforts to soften conditions for Iran to enter talks over its disputed nuclear program, dismissing as "chatter" discussions among U.S. allies about a new approach.
British, French and German officials have begun debating whether to tolerate something less than a full freeze on Iran's work to enrich uranium, an ingredient for both civilian nuclear power or a bomb, officials in Vienna told The Associated Press on Friday.
Germany was supportive of such a concession, while France was opposed and Britain noncommittal, said the officials, who included U.S. and European diplomats and government employees. They said the talks were preliminary, and that nothing had been decided.
"I don't know where that's coming from," Rice said en route to France for two days of get-to-know-you meetings with the new, conservative-led French government and a strategy session on the violence and refugee crisis in Sudan's Darfur region.
Rice said in her discussions with other diplomats she has sensed no willingness to back off conditions that Iran's European and United Nations negotiating partners had set to begin formal talks.
Iran must stop, or suspend, its disputed activity during negotiations, so that it cannot continue to perfect its nuclear expertise while also bargaining to give it up.
Iran has refused, and sped up its enrichment work. Estimates vary, but Iranian scientists are fast mastering the difficult steps involved in nuclear development. Some experts, including the head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, have suggested that time may be running out for talks on the terms Rice and others want.
Iran insists its nuclear work is aimed only at developing nuclear energy, and says it will not give up its right to work toward that goal. For the Iranians, the program has become a matter of national pride. The United States and some other nations are convinced Tehran is secretly working to build nuclear weapons.
"My counterparts when I talk to them are not interested in lowering the bar," Rice said. "There may well be chatter, and I'll call it chatter," Rice said, about other options, but she did not sound concerned about divisions within the international coalition arrayed against Iran.
Rice dismissed one possible half-measure — a partial suspension of the activities that most concern the West, and U.N. monitoring of any ongoing work.
"I don't know what partial suspension means," Rice said, adding that to her the term means all or nothing. "I don't know what partial suspension would look like, and it doesn't seem to me to be a very wise course."
An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said Sunday that discussions in Portugal on Saturday between Iran's Ali Larijani and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana had been constructive.
The spokesman said the preliminary talks should continue and a quick solution to Iran's nuclear standoff was not at hand.
Solana is the envoy for the coalition that would hold broad talks with Iran on trading a package of incentives for Iran's agreement to scale back its nuclear activities. The offer for those talks has been on the table for more than a year without movement by Iran, and some of Rice's partners are growing restless.
Rice said she is looking forward to discussions with the new government of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and she welcomed France's recent work to galvanize world action on Darfur.
The trip is a coming-out party for what the Bush administration hopes will be a happier relationship with Sarkozy after what Washington viewed as slights and lectures from former President Jacques Chirac.
Rice's meeting with Sarkozy on Monday is their first since he took over last month. It is a day for American Republicans with unusual pedigrees and star wattage. After receiving the first black woman to become the top U.S. diplomat, Sarkozy has a meeting Monday afternoon with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.