World powers seek unity on Iran nuke program

By GEORGE JAHN | March 7, 2012 | 2:58 PM EST

Israel's Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, Ehud Azoulay prepares his papers for the IAEA board of governors meeting at the International Center, in Vienna, Austria, on Wednesday, March 7, 2012. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

VIENNA (AP) — Six world powers found common ground Wednesday on how harshly to criticize Iran, but only after marathon negotiations reflecting the difficulties of presenting a united front at upcoming nuclear talks with Tehran.

A 35-nation meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency's board was scheduled to discuss concerns about Iran's nuclear program Wednesday. But its rapid and unscheduled adjournment reflected the East-West divide on the issue.

With the formal conference set to reconvene Thursday, diplomats of the six nations met in private to resolve the differences, finding agreement only after hours of intensive bargaining, said an international official familiar with the issue. He asked for anonymity because his information was privileged.

The U.S., Britain, France and Germany wanted a joint statement that takes Iran to task for defying U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding it end uranium enrichment and cooperation with an IAEA probe of suspicions it secretly worked on nuclear arms.

But a senior Western diplomat told The Associated Press that Russia and China — which have condemned Western sanctions on Iran as counterproductive — sought more moderate language. He also asked for anonymity to discuss confidential matters.

Officials did not discuss the text agreed upon but considering the concerns of the two sides it is likely to strike a balance that was acceptable to all.

While divisions along such lines are not new, the fact that the scheduled Wednesday board session had to adjourn in its third day to give diplomats time to iron out differences reflects poorly on hopes of unity at talks scheduled in the near future between Iran and the six.

Open skepticism within the Western camp about Iran's readiness to negotiate cast further doubt about the outcome of those talks, with French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe saying he is not convinced the Islamic Republic is ready to compromise over its nuclear program.

Speaking for the six powers — who have repeatedly tried and failed to wrest concessions from Iran — European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton announced Tuesday that they had agreed to new talks at a still to be determined time and venue. Even minor progress at such a meeting would serve to lower tensions exacerbated by increasingly frequent warnings from Israel of possible military strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities.

But Juppe said Wednesday he's "a bit skeptical" about the outcome after previous failures.

"I think Iran is continuing to use double speak," Juppe said on France's i-Tele television. "That's the reason why we must remain extremely firm on the sanctions we have decided upon, which are from my point of view the best way to avoid a military option, which could have immeasurable consequences."

Iran has steadfastly rejected demands to halt its uranium enrichment, which Washington and its allies worry could be the foundation for a future nuclear weapons program. Iran claims it seeks only energy and medical research from its reactors, but it wants full control over the nuclear process from uranium ore to fuel rods.

It has also stonewalled an IAEA probe of suspected clandestine research and development into nuclear weapons for four years, dismissing the allegations as based on forged intelligence from the United States and Israel.

In a possible concession Tuesday, Tehran said inspectors could visit Parchin, a military facility that the IAEA suspects was used for secret atomic weapons work. An IAEA official, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the issue, dismissed the offer as a stalling tactic.

Like France, Israel expressed doubt the talks would succeed.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's security adviser Yaakov Amidror said Israel is "very happy" to hear of the negotiations. But he said "without a real military alternative," Iran is unlikely to give up its nuclear program.

Israel believes Iran is trying to produce a nuclear weapon and has said military action should be considered to stop the Iranians. President Barack Obama told the visiting Netanyahu this week that diplomacy must be given more time.