The international community was yesterday weighing its options after Iran responded to an offer aimed at ending a nuclear crisis with a call for "serious talks," but no indication it would freeze uranium enrichment as demanded by the UN Security Council.
Europe said Iran's response required careful analysis as signs of a split began to emerge among world powers over how to respond, with the US pressing for sanctions and China appealing for patience.
Iran's top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani said Tehran was ready for "serious talks," but no details were made public of its response to a package of incentives offered by world powers in return for a moratorium on enrichment by an Aug. 31 UN deadline.
The response is "obviously disappointing as it overlooks the key condition," a Tehran-based Western diplomat said. "Iranians signal they want serious talks, but they do not appear to be willing to make significant concessions."
An Iranian official confirmed Tehran's refusal to suspend enrichment, but insisted: "We can discuss all the items of the proposal; this is a sign of flexibility on Iran's part."
Washington suspects the nuclear program is a cover for an attempt to produce a bomb. Enrichment can make fuel for nuclear power stations or be extended to create the core of atomic weapons.
However, Iran insists it is purely for peaceful power generation and that it has the right to the technology as a signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the last word on all key policy issues, said on Monday the Islamic republic was determined to press ahead with its nuclear program.
Tehran gave the written response to representatives of the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany which drew up the package of trade, technology and security incentives.
"Iran is ready for serious talks with the `five plus one' group from Aug. 23 over the offered package," Larijani was quoted as saying.
The US began urging punitive action while Russia said it was important to explore "nuances" in Iran's response and Tehran's major trade partner China said sanctions were not the way to resolve the crisis.
"We will obviously study the Iranian response carefully," US ambassador to the UN John Bolton said. "But we are also prepared -- if it does not meet the terms set -- to proceed here in the Security Council ... with economic sanctions."
The White House also warned that a nuclear-armed Iran would be "dangerous" to the world.
Russia, which is building Iran's first nuclear power plant, said it would continue to press for a political solution and wanted to keep the UN nuclear watchdog -- not the Security Council -- at the center of the process.
China's special envoy to the Middle East, Sun Bigan, said too that Beijing sought a "peaceful settlement rather than resorting to force or threatening sanctions."
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said he would remain in contact with Larijani, adding that the Iranian document that "requires a detailed and careful analysis."
The Iranian press gave a mixed reaction to the nuclear response, with conservative newspapers urging the Islamic republic to reject a nuclear freeze.
"The only way ahead is to leave the NPT and put an end to this ridiculous game," wrote Hossein Shariatmadari, editor of the hardline Keyhan.