Key nations trying to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions are hoping Tehran will agree quickly to suspend uranium enrichment and return to negotiations, but they are planning for sanctions if it does not, diplomats said Friday.
On the diplomatic front, the six parties - Russia, the United States, Britain, France, Germany and China - are pressing for a meeting next week of top negotiators from both sides and hoping for an answer from Iran. Senior diplomats from the six nations met Friday to discuss what sanctions should be imposed on Tehran if it refuses to suspend its enrichment program, U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said.
Oil-rich Iran says it needs uranium enrichment to produce fuel for nuclear reactors that would generate electricity and insists its program is peaceful. Enrichment can also create material for atomic bombs, however, and the United States and other nations suspect that is Tehran's real goal.
The U.N. Security Council set an Aug. 31 deadline for Iran to suspend enrichment or face mild initial sanctions. It urged the Iranian government to respond positively to a package of incentives put forward in June by the six parties. Iran responded in a lengthy document that raised many questions.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said the six parties let the deadline slip after the European Union's foreign policy chief Javier Solana described his initial meeting with Iran's top negotiator Ali Larijani as "constructive."
"And from there on we are indeed at a very advanced stage of the discussions between Mr. Larijani and Mr. Solana," he said at a breakfast meeting with reporters.
The parties had expected Solana and Larijani to meet this week on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly's ministerial meeting, but the Iranian negotiator never made it to New York. Douste-Blazy said no specific date was set yet for a Solana-Larijani meeting, but "we do hope for next week, and I hope the beginning of next week."
U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said Solana "is looking to find out where Larijani is, and then see if they can agree on a mutually convenient great city of Europe where they can meet."
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said there is a reasonable chance that Iran will return to negotiations on its nuclear program.
"The chance is there, and the chance is not too slim," he said in an interview with The Associated Press. "But for this chance to be realized in practical terms, we need efforts on both sides, and we need good will."
Douste-Blazy opened his meeting with reporters, noting that Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said for the first time at a press conference Thursday that Iran is prepared to negotiate the suspension of its enrichment activities _ if there are fair conditions.
Ahmadinejad told reporters "our position on suspension is very clear."
"In the package given to the Europeans, we've discussed that. We have said that under fair conditions and just conditions, we will negotiate about it _ under fair and just conditions, I repeat," the Iranian president said.
French President Jacques Chirac has proposed that at the start of negotiations, Iran could suspend uranium enrichment and the Security Council could suspend its push for sanctions.
"I believe that it is important to see rather fast whether the Iranians do wish or not to suspend enrichment, which is why I started with Ahmadinejad's statement," Douste-Blazy said.
If the Iranians are not open to the package of incentives, he said, then the Security Council should move ahead with sanctions.
But Russia's Lavrov said he did not believe in artificial deadlines, saying they do not work.
"The quality of the agreement is much more important, and especially in this particular case there is no objective reason for any ultra-rush, if you wish," he said.
Burns said he did not expect the foreign ministry political directors to make a decision Friday on what sanctions should be included in the first round, should that be necessary.
"We're very much hoping Iran will do the right thing," he said. "Rather than rely on words, we're going to look at deeds. That would be full suspension."