Iran sets out position ahead of nuclear talks
TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran signalled on Wednesday it did not plan to make major concessions on its nuclear programme at talks this week to be attended by world powers including the United States.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Iran was ready to negotiate but showed no sign of backing down on the issue at the centre of the dispute -- Iran's refusal to halt atomic activities.
The United States will send a senior envoy, Under Secretary of State William Burns, to Geneva to discuss Tehran's response to an offer of incentives in exchange for suspending uranium enrichment, which the West believes is aimed at making nuclear bombs.
The Bush administration said sending Burns was intended to send a signal to Tehran and others that it wants to find a diplomatic solution to the impasse.
But Washington said it would not join full-blown negotiations unless Iran halts its uranium enrichment programme.
"Nothing has changed," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said in Washington. "If they don't accept this offer, one, there will not be negotiations and two, there will be additional sanctions," she said.
Burns will join European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and envoys from China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany in Saturday's discussions with Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili.
The U.S. government had previously said it would not take part in pre-negotiations with Iran unless it halted enrichment, a demand which Iranian officials have described as a "red line" for Tehran.
World oil prices, pushed up by emerging market demand, have reacted quickly to spikes in tension between Iran and the United States, making Iran's nuclear dispute a subject of concern to economies suffering rising inflation and fears of recession.
Iran has repeatedly refused to stop its most sensitive nuclear work, as the six powers say it must do before formal talks can begin on the package of economic and other benefits.
They say that before they will hold even preliminary talks on the offer, Tehran must freeze any expansion of its nuclear programme in return for the U.N. Security Council halting further sanctions measures.
Iran has given no indication it will accept such a freeze.
Iran, the world's fourth-largest oil producer, says it wants to enrich uranium only to produce electricity so that it can export more crude oil and gas.
"We have clearly defined red lines," said Khamenei, Iran's highest authority.
"If the negotiating parties enter negotiations with respect toward the Iranian nation ... and with the observance of these red lines, the officials of our country will negotiate," Khamenei said in a speech quoted by state radio.
He warned other nations against trying to intimidate Iran: "The nation is sensitive towards threats," Khamenei said.
The standoff over Iran's nuclear drive has sparked speculation about a military confrontation with the United States or Israel and helped push oil prices to record highs.
U.S. leaders have not ruled out military options if diplomacy fails to resolve the dispute.
Israel, long assumed to have its own atomic arsenal, has vowed to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear-armed power, and staged an air force exercise in June that stoked speculation about a possible assault on Iranian nuclear sites.
Tension rose further last week after Iran test-fired missiles in the Gulf, including one it says could reach the Jewish state and U.S. bases in the Middle East.
Iran has vowed to strike back at Tel Aviv, and at U.S. interests and shipping, if it is attacked.
In Washington on Tuesday, a U.S. official said Burns would not act as a negotiator and would not meet Jalili separately, but would put forward the White House position that Iran must give up enrichment for any real talks to start.
"This will be a one-time participation designed to show unity (among the major powers) and the message will be very clear," the official said.
A senior European official said he had "low expectations" of the talks, but added that "the American gesture is brave and substantial. We hope it will have positive consequences."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saw it as a "smart step" to depart from usual policy and send Burns, said Rice's spokesman Sean McCormack.
"It sends a strong signal to the world and it sends a strong signal to the Iranian government that the United States is committed to diplomacy," he said.
Washington cut diplomatic ties with Iran in 1980, five months after Iranian students seized the U.S. embassy in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution and held captive dozens of Americans.
But the United States has held several rounds of talks with Iran over the past year about what it sees as Tehran's meddling in Iraq.
Solana said he hoped for a "constructive response" at his meeting with Jalili. "I hope we will have good news to communicate to you ... but I cannot guarantee success," he told reporters in Berlin.~
(Additional reporting by Sue Pleming and Tabassum Zakaria in Washington, Mark John in Brussels and Kerstin Gehmlich in Berlin; editing by Tim Pearce and Frances Kerry)
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