Iran ignores informal nuclear offer deadline

BRUSSELS Sat Aug 2, 2008 11:07am EDT

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Iran has so far ignored an informal Saturday deadline to respond to an offer by major powers on its nuclear program, a European Union official said, but the bloc is ready to wait a few more days for an answer.

Major powers asked Iran on July 19 to respond within two weeks to their offer to hold off from imposing more U.N. sanctions if Tehran froze expansion of its nuclear work.

Iran dismisses the idea of having a deadline to reply and accuses the West of double standards.

"There is nothing new (from Iran)," the EU official said, adding that the bloc did not expect an answer over the weekend.

"One should not focus on the deadline too much ... what matters is that we get a clear answer quickly, it's not a matter of one day," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the nuclear talks.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana leads the talks with Iran for the six major powers, the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany, who in June offered Iran economic and other incentives to halt uranium enrichment.

"It's unfortunate the Iranians have not responded to the P5+1's generous incentives package. It just further isolates their country," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said on Saturday, referring to the offer by the six major powers.

"We will be consulting with our allies," Perino said.

The West accuses Iran of seeking to build nuclear warheads under cover of a civilian power program. Iran says its uranium enrichment drive is aimed purely at generating electricity and has vowed to press ahead on its nuclear path.

Iran's representative to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said the country is open to talks but does not consider it is bound by any deadline to answer to the major powers' offer.

"We have not had any discussion (or) agreement of the so-called timeline of two weeks," he told Iran's state Press TV satellite station in comments broadcast on Saturday.

But German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Iran should to stop playing for time.

"Enough dallying about," he told Der Spiegel magazine, adding that Tehran should respond to the Western powers with a useful answer or else face tougher sanctions.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad arrived for talks in Tehran on Saturday, a few weeks after he told France he would use his good relations with Iran to help resolve its nuclear stand-off with the West.

Oil prices rose on Friday after Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz warned Iran was on the verge of a breakthrough in its nuclear program.

The United Nations has imposed three rounds of sanctions on Iran.

The freeze-for-freeze offer is aimed at getting preliminary talks started. Formal negotiations on the nuclear, trade and other incentives will not start before Iran suspends uranium enrichment, something it has shown no sign of doing.

Solana and Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili could talk by telephone in the next few days, an EU diplomat said on Friday.

Diplomats say new U.N. sanctions on Iran are unlikely before September and may not happen this year, though Western states may take tougher measures of their own. Russia, one of the six powers facing Iran, has also opposed a deadline.

(Reporting by Ingrid Melander; Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl in Tehran, Paul Carrel in Berlin and Washington bureau; Editing by Mary Gabriel)

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