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EU to tell Iran time running short for nuclear reply

Written by: Staff
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BRUSSELS, July 4 (Reuters) The European Union will tell Iran tomorrow that time is running short for it to agree to enter negotiations on incentives to curb its nuclear activities or face possible penalties.

Diplomats doubt Iran's top nuclear negotiator will give a firm answer in talks with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, but say Iran will be subject to UN Security Council action if no answer arrives before major power meetings next week.

However, they also say Russia and China would block any steps towards sanctions as long as Iran appears to be seriously studying the offer, leaving Western powers little choice but to wait possibly until Iran's own August deadline for a reply.

An Iranian official said Supreme National Security Council secretary Ali Larijani would bring questions about what Tehran sees as ambiguities in the package offered by six world powers, while others expected at least one more meeting between the two.

''We hope and clearly see the objective of the talks tomorrow is to create the conditions for the start of negotiations,'' Solana's spokeswoman Cristina Gallach said.

''The more clarity we get, the better feedback for the G8,'' she said of a July 15 summit of the Group of Eight major powers in St. Petersburg, to be preceded by talks on Iran among the five top Security Council nations plus Germany next Wednesday.

Tehran has said it will respond to the offer by August. 22.

But Washington in particular wants G8 leaders to chart future action, insisting Tehran has had ample time to respond to a package presented a month ago of technology, trade and political incentives for Iran to halt uranium enrichment.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Berlin also hoped Iran's position would be clear by the summit.

''We need an answer soon, fast. We have signalled this to Iran repeatedly over the past days,'' Steinmeier told reporters during a trip to Slovenia.

But others avoided talk of a deadline. A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman for Security Council veto-holder China urged Tehran to reply as soon as possible but told a news briefing in Beijing that Iran's ''reasonable concerns'' had to be properly addressed.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair also said there was no fixed deadline for Iran to deliver an answer to the offer and acknowledged the Islamic Republic might be playing for time while continuing to develop nuclear technology.

''I am prepared to go to every outer limit to give them a chance to disprove that,'' he told a parliamentary committee.

A senior diplomat with the UN nuclear watchdog agency said Iran's delay could not be branded simply as bad faith.

''The Iranian need for time is genuine. They are not all of one mind on how to respond. Whatever the West's view of Iran's regime, it is not as monolithic in debate as many like to pretend,'' the diplomat said in Vienna.

''After all, look how long it took the US to decide it was okay to make an offer to join the negotiating table,'' he said.

''Larijani will require at least one more meeting with Solana to answer his questions, so we know this (Wednesday) deadline won't be met,'' one Western G8 diplomat said.

Semi-official Mehr News Agency quoted Larijani yesterday as dismissing the big powers' crucial precondition that Iran stop enriching uranium -- a process which can be used in making a bomb -- to win talks on implementing the incentives.

Iran, the world's fourth biggest oil exporter, rejects Western suspicions that it wants to build a nuclear warhead. It insists its nuclear programme is only to produce electricity.

The package drafted by European powers Britain, France and Germany and the EU, and endorsed by the United States, Russia and China, offers a state-of-the-art nuclear reactor with a guaranteed fuel supply, as well as economic benefits and support for the idea of a regional security framework.

But it is all predicated on Iran stopping uranium enrichment and related activities while negotiations are under way.

REUTERS SHB RK2120

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