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. Iran and Europeans give themselves breathing space in nuclear talks
GENEVA (AFP) May 25, 2005
The European Union and Iran gave themselves breathing space in their talks on Tehran's controversial nuclear programme on Wednesday by agreeing to return to the table in August -- after Iran's presidential elections next month.

Following a three-hour meeting in Geneva with Iran's chief negotiator Hassan Rowhani, the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany, representing the 25-member EU, pledged to come up with concrete proposals on cooperation by the end of July.

Those proposals will emerge after a new president is elected in Iran on June 17.

European capitals are hoping that Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is regarded as a pragmatist, will win the election, analysts said, allowing the Europeans to strike a deal with Iran on the nuclear issue.

The EU proposals are expected to focus on cooperation with Iran over civilian nuclear power, as well as commercial and political ties.

Iran in turn pledged to continue a freeze on its uranium enrichment programme, going back on threats to resume it that had raised fears the talks would collapse.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw read a joint statement to reporters, laying out an offer to table detailed proposals by August and reminding Iran of the need to stick to an accord struck in Paris last November.

Iran had agreed in Paris to suspend uranium enrichment in order to avoid suspicions that it was developing nuclear weapons, while the EU said it would refrain from referring Iran to the UN Security Council.

The step could lead to international sanctions, something favoured by the United States.

Besides offering to help Iran's civilian nuclear programme, the EU also reiterated that it would back Iran's efforts to join the World Trade Organisation, which have been blocked by Washington.

Uranium enrichment is the key obstacle between the two sides, since the process offers the potential to make nuclear weapons as well as to boost fuel for a civilian power reactor.

Iran's chief negotiator Hassan Rowhani reiterated that Iran would "abide by its commitments and insists on its full rights within the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)".

While prohibiting the expansion of nuclear weapons capability to new countries, like Iran, the NPT outlines a country's right to nuclear power for civilian use.

French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said the future European proposals would "notably deal with the establishment of a nculear programme in Iran that is exclusively destined for civilian use".

But Barnier ruled out the likelihood of a deal that would include uranium conversion, one of the key capabilities of the nuclear plant in Isfahan that Iran wants to reopen.

Conversion is an initial stage in the nuclear fuel treatment cycle which is a precursor to enrichment.

"There is no concrete proposal on the table at this stage," said German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.

"We have our different positions and it is not easy to narrow them," he added.

An Iranian diplomat told AFP that Iran had managed to convince the EU-3 to make its "detailed" proposals earlier, in late July or August, instead of in September.

A spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who also took part in the meeting, said talks would not resume until Tehran responded to the EU proposals.

"The afternoon was hard and we have to expect tough negotiations," said spokeswoman Christina Gallach.

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