updated 9/23/2006 12:05:49 AM ET 2006-09-23T04:05:49

Key nations trying to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions are hoping Tehran will agree quickly to suspend uranium enrichment and return to negotiations, but they are planning for sanctions if it does not, diplomats said Friday.

Russia, the United States, Britain, France, Germany and China are pressing for a meeting next week of top negotiators from both sides and hoping for an answer from Iran. Senior diplomats from the six nations met Friday to discuss what sanctions should be imposed on Tehran if it refuses to suspend its enrichment program, U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said.

Oil-rich Iran says it needs uranium enrichment to produce fuel for nuclear reactors that would generate electricity and insists its program is peaceful. Enrichment can also create material for atomic bombs, however, and the United States and other nations suspect that is Tehran’s real goal.

Previous deadline unmet
The U.N. Security Council set an Aug. 31 deadline for Iran to suspend enrichment or face mild initial sanctions. It urged the Iranian government to respond positively to a package of incentives put forward in June by the six parties. Iran responded in a lengthy document that raised many questions.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters in New York that she was confident that “everybody is committed” to the provisions of the resolution.

“If Iran is not willing to suspend ... its enrichment and reprocessing activities and enter negotiations, then we will have Security Council action under Article 41 Chapter 7,” she said, referring to the article for sanctions. “I am absolutely certain of that and we will do so. We want to give diplomacy its best chance but I can assure you the time is not endless.”

Looking for a meeting place
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said the six parties let the deadline slip after the European Union’s foreign policy chief Javier Solana described his initial meeting with Iran’s top negotiator Ali Larijani as “constructive.”

The parties had expected Solana and Larijani to meet this week on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly’s ministerial meeting, but the Iranian negotiator never made it to New York. Douste-Blazy said no specific date was set for a Solana-Larijani meeting, but “we do hope for next week, and I hope the beginning of next week.”

U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said Solana “is looking to find out where Larijani is, and then see if they can agree on a mutually convenient great city of Europe where they can meet.”

Douste-Blazy opened his meeting with reporters, noting that Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said for the first time at a press conference Thursday that Iran is prepared to negotiate the suspension of its enrichment activities — if there are fair conditions.

No one backing down
Ahmadinejad told reporters “our position on suspension is very clear.”

“In the package given to the Europeans, we’ve discussed that. We have said that under fair conditions and just conditions, we will negotiate about it — under fair and just conditions, I repeat,” the Iranian president said.

French President Jacques Chirac has proposed that at the start of negotiations, Iran could suspend uranium enrichment and the Security Council could suspend its push for sanctions.

“I believe that it is important to see rather fast whether the Iranians do wish or not to suspend enrichment,” Douste-Blazy said.

If the Iranians are not open to the package of incentives, he said, then the Security Council should move ahead with sanctions.

Burns said he did not expect the foreign ministry political directors to make a decision Friday on what sanctions should be included in the first round, should that be necessary.

“We’re very much hoping Iran will do the right thing,” he said. “Rather than rely on words, we’re going to look at deeds. That would be full suspension.”

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