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Tehran says nuclear talks going too slow

Threatens to walk from discussions

TEHRAN -- Iran described progress on nuclear talks with Europe as unsatisfactory and too slow, with Tehran's chief negotiator warning yesterday that it soon may walk away from the discussion.

''If upcoming talks show tangible progress, Iran will be prepared to continue negotiations. Otherwise, the possibility of reconsidering the process of talks with Europeans is serious," chief nuclear negotiator Hossein Mousavian was quoted by the official Islamic Republic News Agency as saying yesterday.

Earlier, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said that a permanent halt of Iran's nuclear activities was out of the question, but that Tehran was not yet ready to declare the ''complicated and difficult" talks with Europe a failure.

The crux of the negotiations, Asefi said, involves securing European approval for a nuclear program built with guarantees that the technology will not be diverted toward weapons. Washington insists Tehran's uranium-enrichment program is aimed at developing a bomb, not merely providing an energy source.

''We announce again that nuclear weapons have no place in our defense and security doctrine," Asefi said.

Iran has massive oil and natural gas reserves and had a crucial OPEC meeting in Iran on Wednesday. The United States contends Iran's petroleum wealth means it has no need for nuclear power.

Talks between Iran and Britain, Germany, and France, who negotiate on behalf of the European Union, ended without result last week. The two sides were to meet again March 23.

Iran suspended activities related to uranium enrichment last year to create confidence in its negotiations and to avoid UN Security Council referral for possible sanctions. Asefi said, however, that Iran did not fear the Security Council.

''We have been subject to sanctions in the past. In the short-term, it put us under pressure, but in long term, it helped our economy to flourish," he said.

Tehran says maintaining the voluntary freeze depends on progress in the talks.

Asefi said Iran might agree to direct negotiations with the United States if Washington acknowledged Tehran's right to develop nuclear technology. Otherwise, US entry into the negotiations would probably cause them to fail, he said.

On Saturday, Asefi rejected US overtures aimed at coaxing Tehran to drop its nuclear ambitions.

The policy shifts, announced earlier by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, include dropping opposition to Iran's application for membership in the World Trade Organization and allowing the sale of some spare parts for civilian aircraft.

Rice signaled that Iran should quickly accept, or face the threat of sanctions.

The Europeans want Iran to permanently halt uranium-enrichment activities in exchange for economic aid, technical support, and backing for Tehran's efforts to join mainstream international organizations.

Asefi insisted Iran will never agree to a permanent freeze. He said that in 2003, Iran and the Europeans held long discussions over the words ''suspension" and ''cessation" and that the Europeans agreed that Iran would suspend, not stop, its nuclear activities.

''Developing peaceful nuclear technology is our legitimate right, and we will never give it up," he said.

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