George W. Bush, US president, on Wednesday made clear his patience was running short in the dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme, after Tehran said it might not respond to an international offer until late August.
“It should not take the Iranians that long to analyse what is a reasonable deal,” he said at a US-European Union summit in Vienna, in response to an announcement by Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, Iranian president, that Iran would reply to the offer by August 22.
The clash over dates reflects Iran’s confidence that the US and its allies are in no position to dictate to Tehran over its controversial nuclear programme.
While the US and the EU have won the backing of Russia and China for their offer to provide Tehran with technical and economic help if it halts uranium enrichment, Moscow and Beijing have balked at promising to support sanctions if Iran rejects the deal.
Iran says it needs uranium enrichment, which can provide both weapons-grade material and nuclear fuel, to bolster its energy security. But the US and the EU suspect it of seeking to develop a nuclear weapons capacity.
In an interview with the Financial Times on Wednesday before Mr Ahmadi-Nejad made his statement, Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said he expected a response from Iran in “coming days”. That timing echoed the view of two Iranian regime insiders who told the FT earlier this week that Tehran would issue a counter proposal within two weeks.
But, speaking to crowds in Hamadan in western Iran in a speech broadcast live on national television, Mr Ahmadi-Nejad said Iran welcomed “any fair and unconditional negotiations” but warned “bullying powers” that Iran would “stand firm . . . [and] not retreat one iota”.
“We will study Europe’s proposed package and announce our view at the end of Mordad [August 22],” he said.
Mr Ahmadi-Nejad’s intervention was unexpected, and came a day after Manouchehr Mottaki, the foreign minister, said Iran had not formulated a response to the package.
An official in Tehran told the FT he could not explain Mr Ahmadi-Nejad’s announcement. “We have two neo-conservative presidents, one here and one in the US, and I don’t understand the thought processes of either,” he said. “But it has been clear Iran does not want to [be] pushed into anything.”
European diplomats expect that Iran will make a counter-offer to restrict, rather than freeze, enrichment pending the negotiations.
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