VIENNA, Austria — Iran vowed anew to continue enriching uranium, dealing a potential setback to a European plan to ease the nuclear standoff with Tehran by offering sales of nuclear fuel and a trade deal as incentives.
Britain, France and Germany were to offer Iranian officials the enticements Thursday in a private meeting in Vienna, hoping to persuade the country to stop enrichment, which can be used both to generate electricity or build a nuclear weapon.
But even before they could make a formal pitch, Iran said Wednesday it had a compromise proposal which would not compromise its right to enrich uranium. The Iranians did not give details, but President Mohammad Khatami made it clear that his government had no intentions of stopping the practice.
“We expect that our legitimate rights be recognized and that Iran not be deprived of nuclear technology,” Khatami told reporters Wednesday in Tehran. “The main problem is that they say, `You should ignore your rights,’ and that we would never do.”
Diplomats involved in Thursday’s talks did not immediately react to the Iranians’ statements.
By offering the incentives, the three European powers are giving Iran one last chance to avoid the threat of U.N. sanctions. Although Iran insists its nuclear activities are peaceful and geared purely toward generating electric power, the United States has accused it of running a clandestine weapons program.
On Nov. 25, the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency’s 35-nation board of governors will deliver a fresh assessment of Iran’s cooperation — or lack of it — with the nuclear watchdog agency. The United States is pressing to report Iran’s noncompliance to the U.N. Security Council, which has the power to impose sanctions.
The incentives being offered to Iran included the possibility of buying nuclear fuel from the West, along with the promise of lucrative trade, diplomats said on condition of anonymity. They did not confirm reports that a light-water nuclear research reactor was part of the package.
“We will have to see the offer. We have not seen anything yet,” an Iranian official told The Associated Press. “And then we will have to take it to our capital. We really have to wait and see.”
The foreign ministers of Britain and Germany this week urged Iran to indefinitely suspend its nuclear program. Iran has resumed testing, assembling and making centrifuges used to enrich uranium, heightening U.S. concerns that its sole purpose is to build a bomb.
But the European negotiators are holding out hope that a diplomatic confrontation — and the looming threat of punishing sanctions — can be avoided if Tehran agrees to give up enriching uranium in exchange for peaceful nuclear technology.
If Iran does not accept the incentives, suspend enrichment and agree to IAEA verification that it has done so, the three likely would back the U.S. push to report Tehran’s defiance to the Security Council, the diplomats said.
IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said the nuclear agency was not directly involved in the talks, but that agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei “absolutely” welcomed the initiative.
“Mr. ElBaradei has been calling on the Iranians to fully suspend” uranium enrichment, Fleming said. “He’s been supporting dialogue as a way forward in Iran, coupled with a continuation of an intensive inspection process. Any constructive dialogue is welcomed.”
Experts say Iran has been building a heavy-water reactor, which would use plutonium that also could be used in a nuclear weapon. A light-water research reactor, by contrast, uses a lower grade of plutonium.