* Both sides say ready to resume talks, unclear when
* Fears of downward spiral into new Middle East war
* Stopping higher-grade nuclear enrichment sought by West
* Iran's priority is easing of harsh economic sanctions
By Yeganeh Torbati
DUBAI, Dec 17 Iran's foreign minister said on
Monday a way must be found to end the deadlock with major powers
over the country's nuclear programme, an Iranian news agency
reported, but he offered no new initiative on how to achieve
Ali Akbar Salehi's comments came ahead of an expected
resumption of diplomacy, perhaps next month, aimed at preventing
the decade-old nuclear dispute from degenerating into a Middle
East war that could damage an already fragile world economy.
Israel, widely believed to be the Middle East's only
nuclear-armed power, has threatened military action to prevent
its arch-enemy from acquiring nuclear weapons. Iran denies any
such goal and says it would hit back hard if attacked.
"The two sides (Iran and world powers) have reached a
conclusion that they must exit the current stalemate," Salehi
was quoted as saying by the Iranian Students' News Agency.
The West suspects Iran is trying to develop the means to
build atomic bombs under the cover of a declared civilian
nuclear energy programme. The Islamic Republic says it is
enriching uranium as fuel for civilian energy, not bombs.
Iran and the six powers - the United States, Russia, France,
China, Britain and Germany - have expressed readiness to revive
efforts to find a negotiated solution. But Salehi said he did
not know when the next meeting would be held.
The powers, known as P5+1, said last week they hoped soon to
agree with Iran on when and where to meet. There have been
suggestions it could happen this month, though January now seems
more likely, Western officials say.
In Washington, the State Department said Iran had been
presented with a specific offer of a date and venue for the next
talks but had yet to respond.
"We are continuing to maintain contacts with the Iranians.
We did make an offer with regard to venue and timing for another
round but we have yet to hear from the Iranians on this," State
Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
"Really the ball is in the Iranians' court. If they want to
come back to the table we are ready to do that, but we want to
see them be serious," Nuland told a news briefing.
Analysts and diplomats believe there is a window of
opportunity for a new diplomatic initiative with Iran after last
month's re-election of U.S. President Barack Obama.
The powers want Iran to scale back its uranium enrichment
programme and cooperate fully with U.N. nuclear inspectors.
The priority for Iran, a major oil producer, is for the West
to lift punitive sanctions increasingly hurting its economy.
Three rounds of negotiations earlier this year - the last
one in Moscow in June - failed to achieve a breakthrough.
The big powers have prepared an updated version of a package
that was rejected by Tehran in the previous talks, Western
diplomats say, without giving details.
Their immediate priority is for Iran to halt higher-grade
enrichment that could relatively quickly be further processed to
bomb-grade material, shut the Fordow underground plant where
this work is carried out and ship out the stockpile.
SHUTTING FORDOW 'NOT ENOUGH'
Iran has hinted at flexibility regarding its enrichment to a
fissile concentration of 20 percent, but it wants substantial
sanctions easing in return, something the powers say would be
premature before Tehran makes significant concessions.
Iran also wants recognition of what it says is its "right"
to refine uranium, which can have both civilian and military
purposes. "Iran demands its inalienable, legal and legitimate
right and wants nothing more," Salehi said.
One Western official said it was too early to say whether
the new diplomatic attempt may yield results. "We see that
sanctions do have an economic impact on Iran and it is a matter
for Iran to really take this offer seriously."
Iran's economic minister was quoted on Sunday as saying the
country's oil revenues had been cut in half as a result of
Another Western diplomat said the powers were increasingly
concerned about Iran's expanded enrichment capacity at Fordow
and wanted to address this issue in the new proposal. This could
mean, he said, asking Iran to partially dismantle the facility.
"Shutting Fordow is not enough," the diplomat said, adding
it would take longer to restart the facility if the enrichment
installations had been taken apart.
The world powers hope to gain momentum in dealings with Iran
by introducing "confidence-building measures" before approaching
a final agreement at a later date, diplomats say.
They say the powers are likely to offer Iran some form of
sanctions relief in return but any measures may be limited.
Salehi spoke a few days after the International Atomic
Energy Agency and Iran both said progress was made in talks last
Thursday on resuming a long-stalled IAEA investigation into
suspected atomic bomb research in the country.
A senior Iranian legislator said on Monday that Iran would
expect some sanctions relief in return for granting IAEA
inspectors access to the disputed Parchin military complex.
The IAEA believes Iran has conducted explosives tests with
possible nuclear applications at Parchin, a facility southeast
of the Iranian capital, and has repeatedly asked for access.
"They must certainly give some incentive in return, and in
my opinion a reasonable and equal incentive would be lifting the
sanctions," said Alaeddin Boroujerdi, who chairs the national
security and foreign policy committee in the Iranian parliament.