Iran negotiator's absence raises doubts about talks

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WASHINGTON, Sep 19 (Reuters) Iran's chief nuclear negotiator has not come to New York this week as expected, raising doubts about talks on Tehran's nuclear ambitions, US envoy to the United Nations John Bolton said.

''The discussions with Iran appear to have come to a stop -- in the sense that Mr (Ali) Larijani, whom we expected in New York, is not here,'' Bolton told reporters yesterday.

The United States, which gave Larijani a visa for the trip, has repeatedly delayed pushing for UN sanctions on Iran while Larijani held preliminary talks with European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana. But Bolton said time was running out.

Solana said on Friday that a planned meeting last week had been postponed because Larijani needed more time to build consensus in his own country if he was to give a positive answer.

The United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China have offered to negotiate with Iran on a package of economic and political inducements if Tehran verifiably suspends uranium enrichment, which the major powers believe is intended for nuclear weapons development.

Iran insists its nuclear activities are only to produce electricity to meet burgeoning energy needs. It also insists that it has a legal right to enrich uranium.

An EU official told Reuters no meeting between Solana and Larijani has been scheduled for this week so far, adding that EU and Iranian officials have been in daily contact.

President George W Bush, who has accused Iran of stalling for time so it can advance its nuclear program, is expected to discuss Iran in his speech to the UN General Assembly this morning. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an anti-western hard-liner, is to address the assembly tonight.

Major power foreign ministers will discuss next step toward Iran at a meeting this evening.

The UN Security Council demanded that Iran halt uranium enrichment by August 31 but Tehran ignored the deadline and Bolton said the United States intends to press for sanctions.

Some Western diplomats view Ahmadinejad and Larijani as competitors within the Iranian leadership, regarding the negotiator as more pragmatic. One diplomat suggested Larijani may be waiting for the president to leave before he arrives.

''Our assessment is that Larijani genuinely wants to try and get some form of uranium suspension in place and get the negotiations going'' but it is questionable whether that can be achieved given the apparent factionalism in Tehran on the nuclear issue, a European diplomat said.


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