MADRID (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Thursday it was time for Iran to change its nuclear course or be isolated, but Tehran remained defiant hours ahead of talks on the issue with the European Union.
The meeting between EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Iranian top negotiator Ali Larijani looked like a last stab at easing a standoff over Iran’s atomic activity before world powers act to sharpen U.N. sanctions against Tehran.
No one held out hope for a breakthrough after both sides reaffirmed what seemed irreconcilable positions.
Major powers are insisting that Iran suspend uranium enrichment as a precondition for negotiations on trade benefits.
“It is time for Iran to change its tactics. The international community is united on what Iran should do and this is to suspend (enrichment of uranium for nuclear fuel),” Rice said during a visit to Vienna.
Larijani on Wednesday ruled out a nuclear halt as demanded by the U.N. Security Council, offering only to assure its program is not a disguised bid for bombs as the West suspects.
The Islamic Republic, which has the world’s second largest oil and gas reserves, says it wants a nuclear energy industry solely as an alternative source of electricity.
Larijani was to begin talks around 1500 GMT with Solana on a dispute that has saddled Iran with two sets of U.N. sanctions.
Foreign ministers of the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations, meeting in Germany on Wednesday, expressed “deep regret” Iran had kept on expanding enrichment activities and held out the prospect of harsher sanctions.
“If Iran continues to ignore demands of the Security Council, we will support further appropriate measures as agreed in Resolution 1747,” the ministers said in a statement.
Security Council resolution 1747 gave Tehran a 60-day deadline to freeze all enrichment, a process of refining uranium for power plants or, if enriched to a very high degree, weapons.
Iran ignored the deadline, which expired last week.
Rice reiterated a U.S. offer made one year ago that if Iran gave up uranium enrichment work, which the West believes is aimed at building an atom bomb, Washington was ready to reverse decades of American policy and talk to Tehran on any issue.
“But that can’t be done while Iran continues to pursue and to try and perfect technologies that are going to lead to a nuclear weapon. As I have said before, the question is not why won’t we talk to Tehran but why won’t Tehran talk to us.”
China, one of the five permanent U.N. Security Council members with power of veto, stressed its preference for further diplomacy over punitive action against a major trade partner.
“Diplomatic effort to resolve the problem in a peaceful way is the best choice,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told a news conference in Beijing.
Mark Fitzpatrick, chief nuclear non-proliferation analyst at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, said Solana would reassess whether Larijani might be amenable to the Security Council’s “freeze for freeze” formula -- enrichment suspension for sanctions suspension.
“But (Iranian President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad’s daily statements inveighing against suspension leave little room for Larijani to compromise, even if he were so inclined, which is open to question,” said Fitzpatrick.
Solana is empowered by the five permanent Security Council members -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France -- plus Germany and the EU to explore the scope for formal talks on a package of economic, technological and political initiatives if Iran shelves nuclear fuel production.
additional reporting by Sue Pleming and Karin Strohecker in Vienna, Jason Webb in Madrid