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. US calls on Iran to return to nuclear talks
VIENNA (AFP) Dec 01, 2005
The United States called Thursday on Iran to return to talks on its disputed nuclear program while Israel warned it will never allow the Islamic Republic and its arch enemy to get atomic weapons.

The United States hopes "that Iran will be prepared to come back to negotiations and negotiate seriously," said Gregory Schulte, the US ambassador to the UN's nuclear watchdog agency.

Backed by the United States, the European Union is trying to resume talks with Iran on guaranteeing the Islamic Republic is not secretly developing nuclear weapons, as Washington claims.

EU-Iran talks collapsed in August when Iran ended its suspension of uranium conversion, the first step towards making enriched uranium, which can be used to fuel nuclear reactors or as the explosive core of atom bombs.

Iran has repeatedly said it will continue with conversion work, although it is suspending actual enrichment as a confidence-building measure.

Schulte said the Iranians "have an opportunity."

"The question is will the Iranian leadership do what's best for the Iranian people or will they continue down that dangerous path that they are going at present," he told reporters.

In Tel Aviv, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that "Israel, and not only Israel, cannot accept a situation in which Iran would be in possession of nuclear weapons."

"We must do everything possible to prepare for such a situation. But Israel is not spearheading any campaign" against Iran's suspected nuclear weapons ambitions, he added.

Sharon was speaking after his defence minister, Shaul Mofaz, said that international diplomacy and pressure were the best way of confronting Iran over its nuclear ambitions.

Israel, which has never admitted having nuclear weapons but is widely believed to possess around 200 nuclear warheads, carried out an air strike against Iraq's French-built Osirak nuclear plant in 1981.

Mofaz, who was himself born in Iran, has previously hinted that Israel could take pre-emptive military action to halt the Islamic republic's quest for nuclear capabilities.

The EU and Iran had been trying to set up a meeting for next week but "it's more likely it will be in mid-December or early January," said a Western diplomat, who asked not to be named.

Late Wednesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said preliminary negotiations on resuming talks "between Iran and the EU will start within two weeks."

"Officials will have talks on the timetable for negotiations, after which the negotiations will begin at ministerial level," he said, not specifying where they would take place.

An EU diplomat said the idea is "for both sides to put their cards on the table and see if there is any opening for future talks".

"But the Iranians want to have their cake and eat it. They want to have a meeting at the experts level first, and then at a more senior level, and dictate the terms and content of the meeting, that is when they can resume uranium enrichment," the diplomat said.

EU negotiators Britain, France and Germany, known as the EU-3, have insisted they will not "resume formal negotiations with Iran until Iran re-suspends uranium conversion work," another diplomat said.

The UN nuclear watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency last week put off taking Iran to the UN Security Council after the EU-3 agreed to give more time for new Russian diplomacy to work.

Talks on a Russian proposal to allow Iran to conduct uranium enrichment -- in Russia, rather than Iran, so Tehran does not obtain the nuclear technology crucial to making atom bombs -- were expected to take centre stage.

Iran refuses to give up the right to enrichment on its territory, however.

At last week's meeting at its Vienna headquarters, the IAEA's 35-nation board of governors was to review progress since September 24, when it found Iran in non-compliance with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Such a finding requires eventual referral to the Security Council, which can impose sanctions.

However the EU diplomat said that "the Iranians seem to be counting on Russia not following through on the proposal" and so to isolate the EU-3.

Russia and China, which have strong economic ties to Iran, oppose referral to the Security Council, as do non-aligned states which point to Tehran's right under the NPT to work on the nuclear fuel cycle.

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