Iran has less than three weeks to respond to the package of incentives offered by major powers in exchange for its suspending its enrichment of uranium, European diplomats and senior Bush administration officials said on Friday.
The US and Europe have set a deadline of June 29, when foreign ministers from the Group of 8 industrialized nations are scheduled to meet in Moscow. The deadline was not explicitly part of the package given to Iran earlier this week, but Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, conveyed it to Iranian officials in Tehran on Tuesday when he delivered the proposal, the diplomats said.
The deadline reflects concern among the US, Britain and France that Iran continues to enrich uranium and develop its nuclear capability even as its leadership considers the package of incentives.
"We know that time is not on our side," one European diplomat said.
On July 15, President Bush and the leaders of Russia, Japan, Britain, France, Germany, Japan and Italy are to gather in St. Petersburg for the G-8 summit meeting, where Iran is expected to be high on the agenda.
European diplomats said back-and-forth between the major powers and Iran over the package could extend to the meeting, but that Iran was expected to make an initial response well before that. Diplomats and Bush administration officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the terms of the offer had not been released officially.
"If we haven't heard anything from them" by June 29, "that would be a very bad sign, and we'd start looking at the sticks," said one European diplomat, referring to a list of penalties the major powers have agreed to consider if Iran refuses to suspend its uranium enrichment. So far, US and European diplomats have played up the incentives and played down the sanctions.
Iran has insisted that it will not accept limits on its right under existing treaties to enrich uranium for peaceful uses, and on Friday its chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, repeated that pledge but said Tehran was ready to negotiate with Washington.
"Iran can announce today officially and explicitly that it has no problem to negotiate with America," Larijani said in an interview with ISNA, the student news agency.
"I believe that America and Iran can serve their interests better if they talk to one another," he said, adding, "Maybe there were times that we could have taken bigger steps, but I cannot say that those steps could have had good consequences."
The International Atomic Energy Agency reported on Thursday that Iran restarted uranium enrichment on the same day that Solana was in Tehran.
ISNA quoted an unnamed Iranian official on Friday confirming resumption of the activities.
"Iran has started another stage of injecting hexafluoride gas into centrifuge machines," ISNA quoted him as saying.
"Iran is also pursuing a plan to have a 3,000-centrifuge cascade by the end of the current year," meaning by March next year, the official said.