Iran Rejects Potential European Incentives

Published: May 17, 2006

WASHINGTON, May 17 — Iran's president today rejected Europe's plan to offer incentives for Tehran to give up its nuclear research program, despite word from diplomats that the package would include new assistance in building a light-water nuclear reactor for civilian use.

"They say they want to give us incentives!" President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared to a crowd in the central Iranian city of Arak, news services reported. "Do you think you are dealing with a four year old child to whom you can give some walnuts and chocolates and get gold from him?"

The offer to help with a light-water reactor, which could not easily be used to make weapons, is part of a new package of incentives the Europeans are assembling in one more attempt to salvage their negotiations with Iran, according to European and American diplomats. The package is also to contain threats of economic punishments if Iran does not cooperate.

In their bid to get Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment activities and reassure the West that it is not making nuclear weapons, the Europeans have previously held out the possibility of Iran's being allowed to have a light-water reactor. But the new package would more explicitly promise Western help to build it, officials said.

"The Europeans are dusting off and refining what has already been on the table and seeing what is possible in terms of new ideas," said a senior State Department official, one of several diplomats who discussed the European package, on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to describe the plan, which has not been completed.

President Ahmadinejad referred in his speech today to the earlier round of negotiations with Europe. Those talks followed Iran's decision in 2003 to admit to almost two decades' worth of violations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and suspend its nuclear program.

After Mr. Ahmadinejad, a hardline conservative, took office last year Tehran reinstituted the suspended programs, leading the Europeans to break off the talks and join with the United States in calling for action by the United Nations Security Council.

Iran "will in no way give up its peaceful nuclear activities as it did once in the past three years, and is determined not to repeat this bitter experience," Mr. Ahmadinejad said, according to the country's state-run news agency.

A light-water reactor requires enriched uranium for fuel, but under the deal to be proposed by the West, Iran would be guaranteed a supply of fuel from outside the country in return for giving up the fuel after it is used. That way, Western experts say, the reactor byproducts could not be used in a weapons program.

The Bush administration has not formally endorsed the European package because it has not been completed and because American diplomats say that the package of punishments has not been made final. Washington wants to make sure that Europe presents Iran with inducements for cooperation and disincentives for defiance.

American and European diplomats acknowledged that they were far from certain that Iran would be interested in the new European proposal, which is to be discussed in London later this week or early next week by top American, European, Russian and Chinese diplomats.

Russian and Chinese attitudes are considered crucial, the diplomats said. So far, Russia and China have rejected the United States effort to get a United Nations Security Council resolution demanding that Iran cooperate in the nuclear area or face possible sanctions.

The latest effort to assemble a package came out of a meeting last week of top envoys that European officials say went badly. They said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, had an unpleasant exchange on the Iran issue at a dinner attended by other senior envoys.

Some officials said Ms. Rice and Mr. Lavrov had spoken harshly in both Russian and English — languages they both speak — in a way that filled others with dismay about the prospects for future cooperation. It was then that Ms. Rice and some others came up with the idea of repackaging their proposals to Iran.

The hope of the United States, Britain and France is that if the latest incentives are rejected by Iran, Russia might be more inclined to move a step toward possible sanctions. But that is a hope more than an expectation, European diplomats said.

Iran maintains that all its activities are aimed at supplying civilian nuclear energy, but Western specialists say that with all its oil, Iran does not need nuclear energy and must be trying to make a bomb. International inspectors have also cited Iran for failing to disclose its nuclear activities as required by various accords.

The new package to be presented to Iran is the latest in talks that have been going on for more than a year and a half. The previous package was presented to Iran last August by Britain, France, Germany and the European Union as a whole. In return for giving up uranium enrichment, it offered Iran a full array of cooperative steps, including improved diplomatic ties, possible security guarantees and upgraded economic and trade relations. Iran has repeatedly rejected those offers as long as the price to be paid was giving up uranium enrichment, an activity it resumed last summer in the face of outraged protests from the West.

Some members of the Bush administration say that Iran is approaching a "point of no return," if it has not already reached it, in which it will have mastered the technology and understanding of the enrichment process, enabling it eventually to make a nuclear weapon. But actually making weapons would take years, those officials say.

In his speech today, President Ahmadinejad also referred to the letter he sent earlier this month to President Bush, calling it "an historic opportunity." American officials had dismissed the letter — a rambling collection of criticisms — as irrelevant to the nuclear dispute and unworthy of reply.