Iran acknowledges deep differences with Europe in nuclear talks

Deep differences with Europe remain over Iran's nuclear program but Tehran will not give up its nuclear ambitions, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami said Wednesday as U.S. President Bush called for international unity in persuading the Iranians to abandon the program.

Khatami also chalked up recent comments by Bush that Washington is not planning to attack Iran _ a big fear in the region _ to finding little support for such an approach. "Americans make irrelevant claims. ... They've learned their claims are unacceptable and for this reason they are taking back their words," he said.

Bush, who once called Iran part of an "axis of evil," suspects Iran is developing atomic bombs _ an accusation Tehran denies. The rising rhetoric has made many in Europe and the Middle East nervous about a possible U.S. strike against Iran. Bush said Tuesday all options remain, but that "this notion that the United States is getting ready to attack Iran is simply ridiculous."

The Iranian president spoke to reporters after a Cabinet meeting, shortly before Bush said during a visit to Germany that it was vital world leaders stand together against any Iranian nuclear weapons ambitions. Bush's visit with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was aimed in part on discussing tactics for dealing with Iran.

"America does not like an independent Iran, (and) the question is how far they can (go to reduce Tehran's independence), and ... what price they will need to pay to achieve this," Khatami told reporters.

European countries are trying to persuade Iran to turn its temporary suspension of dual-use nuclear activities into a permanent halt. Bush and Schroeder are far apart on how to handle the subject, though Schroeder sought to play down differences. Both said the end result must be a nuclear-arms-free Iran.

Khatami said he is hopeful about talks with Europe: "Although the pace of talks is slow, I'm not pessimistic." But he indicated mistrust between the two sides.

"There are deep differences of opinion between Iran and the Europeans," Khatami told reporters. "We have to give objective guarantees to the (European) gentlemen that we won't divert from the peaceful path. They must also ... give objective guarantees that our rights and security will be protected."

The talks follow up on an agreement reached last year with the European Union that included the Iranian pledge to suspend all uranium enrichment related activities, a move that came as a confidence-building measure and to avoid U.N. Security Council sanctions.

Iran has said it will decide by mid March whether to continue its suspension, which is monitored by U.N. nuclear inspectors, depending on the progress of the talks for a final agreement.

Iran denies trying to develop nuclear weapons, saying its nuclear program is for peaceful energy purposes, and Khatami reiterated no Iranian government would give up nuclear technology.

"Neither my government nor any other (Iranian) government can give up the definite right of the Iranian nation to have peaceful nuclear technology," he said. Iranian officials have suggested accepting a permanent freeze of nuclear activities would bring down the government because the program is a matter of national pride.

While in Germany, Bush said it was vital world leaders stand up against the Iranian regime on the issue.

"We will work with them to convince the mullahs that they need to give up their nuclear ambitions," Bush said during a press conference with Schroeder. "It's vital that the Iranians hear the world speak with one voice that they shouldn't have a nuclear weapon."

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi also told reporters Iran was negotiating to find a workable solution with the Europeans.

"We are negotiating to find a formula to ease European concerns so that they are assured that we are not going toward the production of nuclear weapons," he told reporters. But, he added, "The Europeans can't stop our uranium enrichment program."

© AP

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