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Iran, EU set crunch atom talks; U.S. seeks sanctions 

Mark Heinrich / Reuters | September 9 2006

Iran's top nuclear negotiator and the EU foreign policy chief meet on Saturday in what may be a last chance to avert U.N. Security Council moves to hit Tehran with sanctions over its atomic ambitions.

A spokeswoman for the European Union's Javier Solana confirmed the talks with Iran's Ali Larijani would start at 5 p.m. (1500 GMT) in Vienna, after two days of uncertainty reflecting doubts over whether the talks would achieve anything.

The Solana-Larijani encounter was originally scheduled for Wednesday but postponed at the last minute.

An Iranian diplomatic source said Larijani had arrived on Friday night. Solana was on his way to Vienna on Saturday.

The reluctance of both sides to commit to the talks betrayed a war of nerves that has intensified since Iran ignored a Security Council deadline of August 31 to stop enriching uranium, a process that could yield atomic bombs.

Solana will want Larijani to clarify Iran's 21-page reply to an offer from six big powers of trade and other incentives to halt its nuclear fuel program.

Specifically, Solana is expected to home in on hints in the response that Tehran could curb the program if engaged in negotiations to implement the benefits on offer.

But a diplomat familiar with Tehran's position said Larijani was likely to again rule out the powers' precondition that enrichment be suspended indefinitely. He said looming Security Council action was only poisoning prospects for agreement.

A diplomat from one of three EU states -- France, Britain and Germany -- in the sextet of powers said: "We don't think this meeting will provide a basis for negotiations."

U.S. PUSHING FOR SANCTIONS

Regardless of the Vienna talks, U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said after a meeting of the six in Berlin on Friday that Washington expected the Security Council to begin deliberations next week on a draft sanctions resolution.

But key EU allies as well as Russia and China voiced growing doubt about the speed with which Washington wanted to pursue financial and diplomatic sanctions against Tehran, its arch-foe but also the world's fourth-biggest oil exporter.

To various degrees, they prefer further talks to explore a compromise that would save face on both sides.

"The Berlin talks were not as successful as Burns described. It was basically an exchange of views," the EU diplomat said.

Iran insists it only wants to generate electricity. Western powers suspect the work is a smokescreen for efforts to build atom bombs. U.N. nuclear watchdog probes have raised many questions, but found no proof of diversions into bomb-making.

Tehran renewed calls for negotiations in its reply to the offer of trade inducements. But it ruled out shelving enrichment to qualify for the benefits, a step Western leaders see as vital to creating trust in Iranian intentions.

"They (Iran) have not been convinced of the technical or legal justification for suspension. What happens (about suspension) would depend on the outcome of negotiations," the diplomat versed in Iran's stance told Reuters.

"They are serious and hope the (EU) side shows a similar seriousness. They are ready to discuss all the questions important to both sides and remove the ambiguities."

But an internal position paper drawn up by France, Britain and Germany said Iran was seeking to split world opinion and weaken any sanctions by withholding a clear reply to big power terms, according to a diplomat from one of the "EU3" powers.

Another EU3 diplomat said Larijani's stopovers in Italy and Spain this week seemed to be part of that maneuvering.

"He tours EU states that have a soft approach to sanctions. It's part of a longstanding effort to divide the Europeans from the Americans on Iran. Larijani thinks Italy and Spain will be amenable to arguments not to go to sanctions," he said.

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