Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, has in effect rejected talks with the US on his country's nuclear programme, saying Iran had nothing to gain from them, and that the country had an inalienable right to develop its own nuclear technology.
The ayatollah's remarks, reported by Iranian state television, fall short of a categorical "no" to the package of incentives and sanctions offered by the West this month, in return for a long-term suspension of uranium enrichment by Tehran. But they contrast with the moderately positive reaction of other top Iranian officials, including even President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. "Negotiations with the United States would have no benefit for us, and we do not need them," Ayatollah Khamenei told the visiting Senegalese President, Abdoulaye Wade.
The latest incentives, presented on 6 June by the European Union, were backed by a promise from Washington that if Iran accepted them, and agreed to halt enrichment activities, it would join the EU in negotiations for an overarching nuclear deal with Iran. Such direct talks would have been the first of their kind since the 1979 hostage crisis at the US embassy in Tehran. But the sticking point remains Iran's insistence on its right to enrich its own uranium - enrichment for purely peaceful purposes, its says, but which the US and its allies suspect is part of a clandestine programme to build nuclear weapons.
"We do not negotiate with anybody on achieving and exploiting nuclear technology," Ayatollah Khamenei was quoted as saying. "But if they recognise our nuclear rights, we are ready to negotiate about controls, supervisions and international guarantees."
The initial reaction from the Bush administration was measured. The ayatollah's statement was not the last word in the matter, Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, said. The US expected Iran's formal reply to be delivered by Ali Larijani, Tehran's chief nuclear negotiator, to his counterpart Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief.
"The position has always been the same, which is when Mr Larijani communicates with Javier Solana, that is how we expect to have an answer to the proposal," Mr Snow said.
There was always "a pattern of differing voices coming out of Iran", he added, reflecting the uncertainties here over the true balance of power in Tehran.
Indeed, some analysts speculated yesterday that the ayatollah was in fact attempting to deflect pressure from even more hardline elements within the regime, who reject all contacts whatever with the US.
Washington and Tehran did have informal contacts over Afghanistan during the 2001 war to topple the Taliban. Last year the US put out feelers for similar talks, this time dealing with the Iraq crisis, but the initiative came to nothing.
Nonetheless, yesterday's developments threaten to expose divisions over Iraq within the G8 group of leading powers whose foreign ministers are meeting in Moscow ahead of the summit in St Petersburg.
One purpose of the incentives package was to get around the opposition of Russia and China, both veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council, to punitive UN sanctions against Iran if it continued its enrichment activities. If the Khamenei statement does prove the last word, then those divisions are likely to re-emerge.
Iran is plainly determined to spin out the process as long as possible. President Ahmedinejad now says Iran will only give its considered reply in mid-August, stretching to the limit the "weeks, not months" deadline laid down by the US. President George Bush has already made clear he thinks a reply should come far sooner.Reuse content