WASHINGTON - Iran is considering the proposal by the US and Europe to enter multilateral negotiations on a package of incentives in return for giving up its military nuclear program. It is still not clear, however, if Teheran will be willing to agree to verifiably halt all enrichment activity before beginning negotiations.
Iran made positive noises Saturday about finding a negotiated settlement to its dispute with the international community - providing it doesn't have to stop enriching uranium.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, even used the word "breakthrough." But both held fast to their insistence that Iran has a right to develop nuclear reactors and fuel for peaceful purposes.
Mottaki said Thursday, "We won't negotiate about the Iranian nation's natural nuclear rights but are prepared, within a defined, just framework and without any discrimination, to hold dialogue about common concerns."
This sort of reaction, which was echoed by other Iranian officials, leaves room for negotiations if an agreement is first reached on stopping enrichment. Analysts in the US stressed over the weekend that Iran's reaction to the American proposal seemed to be more pragmatic than any other declaration coming out of Teheran in recent months.
While there were positive signals coming from Iran, the top US intelligence official warned that an Iranian nuclear bomb might be closer than many believe.
John Negroponte, director of national intelligence, told the BBC in an interview that Iran could have a bomb by 2010. "They are determined to develop nuclear weapons," he said, adding that such a development would cause the US "great concern."
The United States warned Iran on Friday that it would not have much time to respond to the international package of rewards, suggesting that the window could close and be replaced by penalties if the Islamic republic didn't react fast.
Iran's state-run television said Ahmadinejad had told UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan that a deal on the Islamic republic's nuclear program was possible, if the International Atomic Energy Agency agreed to Teheran's right to atomic energy.
"A breakthrough to overcome world problems, including Iran's nuclear case, would be the equal implementation of the law for all," the television quoted Ahmadinejad as telling Annan during a telephone conversation.
On Thursday, the foreign ministers of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, meeting in Vienna, agreed on an incentive package to be offered to Iran if it agrees to stop enrichment activity. The package, which was not detailed publicly, included, according to press reports, a commitment to help Teheran build a light water nuclear energy reactor for civilian use and to supply it with nuclear fuel.
In the past, the US has said oil-rich Iran did not need a nuclear reactor to produce energy, but as part of the Bush administration's outreach attempts, Washington now recognizes Iran's right to non-military nuclear power.
The foreign ministers are also offering Iran trade benefits in return for abandoning its nuclear ambitions.
British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, who presented the resolution reached in Vienna, said Iran faced a clear choice between negotiations and benefits on the one hand, and sanctions on the other. "We urge Iran to take the positive path and to consider seriously our substantive proposals, which would bring significant benefits," she said.
The foreign ministers did not reach agreement on the precise sanctions that would be imposed if Iran refuses to halt its nuclear program, but they did see eye to eye on the need for "further steps in the Security Council" if Iran remains defiant.
They did decide on a menu of punishments and sanctions to be imposed if the negotiations track does not yield a positive result. This was seen as representing a shift in the stances of Russia and China, which had previously refused to discuss sanctions against Iran.
"We think that if there is good will, a breakthrough to get out of a situation they [the EU and US] have created for themselves... is possible," Mottaki told a press conference.
"We are waiting to officially receive the proposals. We will make our views known after studying the package," Mottaki said.
"We will also mention if any part of the package is not in Iran's interests," he said, while insisting that Iran would not join talks if conditions were attached.
Mottaki said EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana would hand deliver the package to Iranian officials in the next few days. No specific date had been set for the trip, he said.
In Belgium, Solana's spokeswoman Cristina Gallach confirmed he was ready to travel to Iran very soon. "The trip is not going to be a negotiating trip, the objective is to present the proposals of the international community," she said.
AP contributed to this report.â€¢