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Iran Reportedly Considers Enrichment Suspension

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Amid the commemorations which effectively began over the weekend there have been some developments in the standoff with Iran. Iran's top nuclear negotiator and the European Union's foreign policy chief held two days of discussions in Vienna. Later, it was reported that Iran is offering to suspend its nuclear enrichment activities temporarily. NPR's Emily Harris is following this story in Berlin. And, Emily, what exactly is on offer here from Iran?

EMILY HARRIS: That's unclear - completely unclear. The Iranians are, in fact, denying publicly that they have made an offer to suspend enrichment. There are reports that Iran has, and I was told by French diplomatic sources that the Iranians are apparently ready to stop enrichment.

But as the French point out, there are a lot of questions before that could even be reality. Some of the main questions are when the Iranians would be willing to suspend enrichment, for how long, and, crucially, whether United Nations inspectors would be allowed to verify any suspension?

Publicly, Iran has only said that they discussed suspending uranium - this is Mr. Ali Larijani, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, told this to an Austrian newspaper. He said that he and Mr. Solana, the European Union's top foreign policy chief, said that they did talk about suspending uranium enrichment, but Larijani also said that they did not get as far as what conditions Iran would want before they agreed to suspend enrichment.

INSKEEP: And of course all these murky details and behind-closed-door discussions matter because uranium enrichment is seen by the West as a step toward, a step closer to a nuclear program, a nuclear weapons program for Iran. That's what they want to prevent.

Now if Iran were to suspend uranium enrichment - and I guess we have to make that conditional for now - how would that fit in with the effort to get sanctions imposed on Iran?

HARRIS: Well, by some people it's described as sort of two tracts to the same goal. I mean the brief history of this is that Germany, France and Britain were talking with Iran for a couple of years about suspending their enrichment program. The U.S. joined those talks and the four of them have offered economic and diplomatic incentives to Iran so that sanctions would not be necessary.

But the response from Iran was complicated and late, and meanwhile the U.N. Security Council put together a resolution that said that if Iran doesn't suspend enrichment by August 31st, then the U.N. Security Council would move ahead with possible sanctions.

That move ahead with possible sanctions has already started. The first concrete talks on that took place last week - last Thursday, here in Berlin. And the six countries that are involved in those talks - the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany because it was involved in the original negotiations with Iran - those diplomats from those six nations will be talking again today by conference call.

They have been briefed by Mr. Solana's office about these talks between the European - Mr. Solana, the European Union foreign policy head, and Ali Larijani from Iran over the weekend.

INSKEEP: But does this mean that Iran still has time to avoid the sanctions entirely if it were to take steps that would persuade diplomats that it's serious?

HARRIS: That is unclear. What may happen today - what probably will happen today in the meeting, the conference call, is further discussions about sanctions.

The U.S. really wants to press forward with sanctions despite this talk of possible suspension, which is still very murky from Iran. What it may do is give China and Russia more leverage to delay moving ahead with concrete sanctions because there is already another meeting likely between Mr. Solana and Mr. Larijani later this week.

INSKEEP: Emily, thanks very much.

HARRIS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: The best information available. We'll give you more as we learn more. That's NPR's Emily Harris in Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.