Deadline ultimatum eases for Iran in nuclear showdown

(source: AFP)
Friday, August 1, 2008

WASHINGTON (AFP) — The United States and its European allies have pulled back from setting Saturday as a firm deadline for Iran to reply to the latest international offer of incentives for a freeze in its nuclear drive.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Thursday that there was no deadline and that his country had already replied. US and European officials have also shown more flexibility over the date.

"I didn't count the days. It's coming up soon," US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters Thursday when asked if August 2 was the deadline for Iran to accept or reject the package.

Not only did McCormack omit to mention a strict deadline, he also said there was "no indication of that" when asked whether Washington would pull the incentives offer off the table.

A diplomatic source in Brussels said an Iranian response could come in the next few days but insisted that the international community wanted an answer from Iran.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had given Iran two weeks to come up with a "serious" reply after an international meeting in Geneva on July 19 which saw Tehran broadly accused of stonewalling.

Washington broke with past policy by sending top diplomat William Burns to the talks in Geneva.

US officials said they wanted to encourage those in Iran who want to cooperate with the West to ease the economic and financial pressure caused by UN sanctions.

Gary Sick of Columbia University, an Iran expert who was interviewed after the July 19 meeting, said Washington and Tehran were both showing an increased desire to end the showdown that had raised fears of a military conflict.

"Neither side wants to show that it is losing face, or that it is caving in or appeasing the other side, but both sides are interested in finding a way out of this conundrum," Sick told the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a US think-tank.

Sick said another "change on both sides" is Washington's willingness to look at opening an interests section in Iran -- a first step toward restoring diplomatic ties cut three decades ago -- and Tehran's openness to the idea.

The expert said that Washington had learned that its past desire to isolate Iran with increasingly stiff sanctions had failed to stop Iran enriching uranium -- a key stage in efforts to make a nuclear bomb.

Along with the four other permanent UN Security Council members -- Britain, France, China, and Russia -- as well as Germany, the United States has taken a more conciliatory approach lately.

The so-called P5-plus-1 have offered Iran benefits in civil nuclear energy, trade, finance, agriculture and high technology if it freezes uranium enrichment.

If Iran accepts the package, there would be pre-negotiations during which Tehran would add no more uranium-enriching centrifuges and, in return, face no further sanctions.

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana delivered the incentives package to Tehran in June.

In Brussels, the diplomatic source, who asked not to be named, said that for the Europeans "the Iranian reply should come in the next few days," without setting Saturday as a strict deadline.

"The situation today is that we want a clear reply to the question Solana asked in Geneva," the source said. "For the moment, the Iranian response has not been clear enough."

The source declined to speculate about what action the allies would take if Iran's fell short of expectations.

"We'll see at that time," the source said, recalling that the approach had always been sanctions and dialogue and that the Iranians risked a fourth round of UN Security Council sanctions.

Rice has warned of more "punitive measures," an allusion to more sanctions.

EU nations held a meeting in Brussels on Tuesday and are keen to apply existing UN sanctions against Iran more robustly, an EU diplomat said Wednesday.