VIENNA - Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani offered a 2-month suspension of Tehran's nuclear enrichment programme in weekend talks with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, an EU diplomat said today.
But it was unclear if Iran would meet Western demands it suspend enrichment before talks on trade incentives designed to halt Iranian pursuit of technology the West fears could yield atom bombs. An Iranian official said no such offer was made.
The EU diplomat said Iranian negotiator Ali Larijani offered a 2-month enrichment freeze during seven hours of talks with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana in Vienna over the weekend.
"But we don't know any details about when it would begin, whether before or after negotiations with Iran on the (incentives) package would begin," the diplomat told Reuters.
He said the gesture did not appear to be a significant concession since the United States and others want a long-term suspension to restore confidence that Iran's nuclear programme is geared only to generate electricity, as it insists.
"Two months is nothing," the diplomat said.
Aliasghar Soltanieh, Iranian ambassador to the UN nuclear watchdog agency who accompanied Larijani during part of his visit, denied that a suspension had been discussed with Solana.
"Iran has openly said that there is no legal and technical basis for such a demand (to suspend enrichment)," Soltanieh told Iranian state television in an interview aired from Vienna.
White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters: "We are still trying to assess what the Iranian position is, we're speaking with Javier Solana and others. There have been times where Larijani and the foreign ministry have spoken with different voices."
The Vienna talks had been regarded as a last chance to explore a face-saving compromise before possible punitive action after Iran ignored an Aug. 31 Security Council deadline to stop purifying uranium for use as nuclear fuel.
Larijani and Solana said they cleared up misunderstandings and made progress in a search for common ground.
Their upbeat verdicts could slow Washington's push for swift UN Security Council action this month to impose sanctions on Iran over its atomic fuel work. Europe had already indicated misgivings about isolating the world's No. 4 oil supplier.
"The meetings ... have been productive. We clarified some of the misunderstandings we had before" about Iran's 21-page reply to six world powers' offer of trade inducements to halt nuclear fuel work, Solana told reporters.
"We have made progress and we want to continue in that line and for that purpose we are going to meet again next week. These (talks) have been worth it," he said. An EU diplomat said Solana meant another meeting later this week, most likely on Thursday.
Larijani, standing beside Solana, said: "We reached common points of view on a number of issues. And as mentioned by Dr Solana, many of the misunderstandings were removed. Our meetings will continue."
Solana consulted with foreign ministers of the six powers by phone during the talks and would brief them on the results before they hold a conference call on Monday to discuss what to do next, EU diplomats said.
"The tone of (the talks shows) that both sides are working to be able to create the conditions for negotiations to start. The atmospherics were positive, (unlike) the July 11 meeting which we characterised as difficult," said one EU diplomat.
The six powers - the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China - have publicly insisted Iran suspend its enrichment programme before negotiations to foster trust.
Washington's EU allies share its suspicions that Iran is engaged in a camouflaged bid to assemble nuclear bombs.
But, fearing the repercussions of ostracising a strategic and economic giant in the Middle East, many in the EU prefer a face-saving compromise that might lie in getting Tehran to curb enrichment during any talks on the inducements.
Russia and China, heavy trade partners with Iran, see no immediate security threat from its nuclear work, oppose sanctions and could veto them in the Council. Both believe there is room for a diplomatic solution despite the violated deadline.