and sit down at the table with them so long as they are willing to
suspend their enrichment in a verifiable way." -- President Bush
Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, said the proposals contain "positive steps," but also "ambiguities" that should be removed. Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said Iran will "seriously consider" the package.
Sparse as these words may be, they appear more moderate than Iran's usual dismissal of Western-led attempts to curb Iran's present nuclear program.
Positive Tone In Washington
The tone from the U.S. side was correspondingly mild. U.S. President George W. Bush, speaking in Laredo, Texas, struck an optimistic note when assessing the initial Iranian comments.
"I think that's positive," Bush said. "I want to solve this issue with Iran diplomatically and I appreciate [EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy] Javier Solana carrying a message to the Iranians that America, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany -- the main group of negotiators -- want this problem to be solved."
Details of the package of incentives have not been made public. They are said to consist of help with building light-water nuclear reactors -- less easy to use for weapons development than heavy-water types -- help with joining bodies like the World Trade Organization, various technology transfers, and trade deals.
New Concessions In Offer To Iran?
But there are also reports of what appears to be a key difference from earlier offers, and which may be the reason for Iran's initial receptive reaction.
"The Washington Post" today quoted U.S. and European officials as saying that the package leaves open the possibility that Iran will be able to carry out some uranium enrichment on its own soil.
Previously, the West has insisted that all uranium enrichment in Iran must cease absolutely, because of the suspicion that Iran wants to go beyond the low level of enrichment needed for reactor fuel and aim for weapons-grade enrichment.
The unnamed officials said the new offer would be hedged by conditions to ensure that Iran complied with all terms of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the UN Security Council.
White House spokesman Sean McCormack refused to discuss the contents of the incentive package, and cautioned journalists to take unconfirmed reports with "a grain of salt."
"There are robust measures on both sides, both on the incentive side as well as the disincentive side in the package that has been presented to the Iranian government today, where it presents the Iranian government with a very clear choice on both sides of the road here: a pathway of negotiation [or] a pathway of increased isolation," McCormack said.
Increased U.S. Involvement
As an extra incentive, the United States has offered to sit down at the negotiating table with its trio of European negotiators -- France, Germany, and Britain -- and talk to Iran directly.
"We will see if the Iranians take our offer seriously," Bush said. "The choice is theirs to make. I have said the United States will come and sit down at the table with them so long as they are willing to suspend their enrichment in a verifiable way."
Having Washington as a face-to-face negotiating partner would increase Iran's status, and may make it easier for Tehran to accept the advantages and restrictions of the package.
The United States has said it wants a reply from Iran within weeks, rather than months.
Economic sanctions could further undermine Iran's already shaky economy (Fars)
MOVING TOWARD SANCTIONS: If the United Nations Security Council imposes sanctions on Iran, domestic support for Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad will wane, according to ALEX VATANKA, Eurasia editor for Jane's Information Group.
Vatanka told a February 24 RFE/RL briefing that "economic sanctions will hurt the average Iranian" and, consequently, many "will blame the ruling clerics" for making life difficult and "impairing the country's long term development."
Vatanka said sanctions would be a serious challenge to the Iranian government. If harsh economic sanctions were imposed, Iran's poorest population will be hurt the hardest -- and might react "as they did in the 1970s and protest in the streets." Sanctions on travel, Vatanka said, would hurt a many Iranians because "Iran is a nation of small traders" who depend on the ability to travel to earn an income. According to Vatanka, unemployment in Iran is estimated at 30 percent, "so small trading is essential to survival." Although current U.S. sanctions "haven't worked," he said, "Iranians fear an oil embargo." He stressed that "oil revenues are a major part of the economy, so it is critical to look at this sector."
Should negotiations with the European Union and the UN fail, Vatanka believes that Iran would follow a "North Korea model," since Ahmadinejad's base of support among the "Islamist militias" has been "urging withdrawal from the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty]." The Iranian government's "tactic" so far, Vatanka said, is governed by the belief that "by shouting the loudest, you'll get concessions [from the West]."
LISTENListen to the complete panel discussion (about 60 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media