VIENNA, Austria -- Russia and China joined the United States and three leading European nations in endorsing a package of incentives and penalties yesterday to push Iran to suspend its nuclear program. Few details of the agreement were forthcoming, and British Foreign Minister Margaret Beckett, who announced the deal, cautioned that negotiators want to present the package to Iran before making it public.
But diplomats said incentives were similar to past proposals, including helping Iran obtain a civilian nuclear reactor. The term sanctions was noticeably absent from discussion, but diplomats signaled that Iran would be subject to the full array of punitive measures possessed by the United Nations Security Council should it refuse the offer.
"We have agreed to a set of far-reaching proposals as a basis for discussion with Iran," said Beckett, flanked by top officials of the five permanent members of the Security Council and European Union Foreign Minister Javier Solana. "We are prepared to resume negotiations should Iran resume suspension of all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities as required" by the International Atomic Energy Agency. "And we would also suspend action in the Security Council. We also agreed that if Iran decides not to engage in negotiations, further steps would have to be taken in the Security Council."
Western powers believe that Iran is pursuing the capability to produce a nuclear bomb, but Tehran insists that it seeks only the technology to enrich uranium for civilian purposes.
Iran was circumspect in its first public comments on the offer. "Iran welcomes dialogue under just conditions, but [we] won't give up our [nuclear] rights," said Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki in a statement read on state television. "We are prepared, within a defined, just framework and without any discrimination, to hold a dialogue about common concerns."
Iran will have "weeks not months" to decide whether it is willing to negotiate and suspend its enrichment-related activities, Western diplomats said. The proposal will include a categorical requirement for Iran to stop all research and development activity, including "dry run" operation of centrifuges used to enrich gaseous uranium, a senior State Department diplomat said.
In addition, Iran would have to answer outstanding questions from the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, which has been trying to learn the full extent of Tehran's nuclear activities. Iran would have to abide by other IAEA stipulations, including more extensive inspections of nuclear-related facilities.
Whether Iran agrees or not, months, if not years of diplomacy lie ahead, diplomats said.
The absence of specifics in yesterday's announcement appeared aimed at minimizing the likelihood that the proposal would be the subject of public debate before Iran had a chance to hear it explained by the Europeans, who are expected to present the package to Tehran within days. Diplomats hope that if the package is laid out privately, its seriousness will be clear and Iran will be hard put to dismiss it.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking to Russian reporters after the meeting, said: "Nobody will be going into details now. In the first place, this [proposal] should be given to Iran. Then we will look at the reaction of the Iranian side."
Lavrov urged Iran to take the offer seriously. "We count on Tehran meeting these proposals in a constructive manner," he said.
U.S. diplomats were pleased by the Russian endorsement. "These are conditions [set by] six countries. ... We are very satisfied," said a senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Russia and China are crucial to any sanctions against Iran because they hold veto power on the Security Council. Both countries are major trading partners with Iran.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who announced Wednesday that the United States is willing to join Europeans in direct talks with Iran if it suspends nuclear activities, arrived in Vienna yesterday. She spent more than eight hours meeting with leaders on the proposal.
Diplomats close to the negotiations said all parties had agreed to the incentives side of the proposal, but that penalties would be drawn from a list. Also undetermined was the timing of penalties, which diplomats said would depend on how Iran responds.
The incentives under discussion are not new; they include help with construction of a light-water reactor, guaranteed access to nuclear fuel for civilian power plants, and imports of many goods for which the United States holds licenses, such as parts for airplanes. Under U.S. law, it is illegal to trade with Iran and Washington has no diplomatic relations with Tehran.
Although diplomats avoided the term sanctions, punitive measures would include action by the Security Council, which has the power to ban travel, freeze assets, restrict visas and impose economic embargoes on exports of nuclear technology and a wide array of other goods to Iran.
Diplomats said the package offers a clear choice to Iran: Suspend uranium enrichment and be treated as a full partner in the world community or face painful consequences from a united international community with the power to undermine Iran's economy and stability.
"There are two paths ahead," said Beckett. "We urge Iran to take the positive path and to consider seriously our substantive proposals which would bring significant benefits to Iran."
The agreement yesterday finalized discussions begun May 8 in London in which diplomats decided that they would present Iran with a choice, diplomats said.
Russia and China expressed interest yesterday in joining the so-called E.U. 3 and the United States if negotiations go forward. That approach would mirror six-party talks with North Korea over its nuclear program.
The United States and Europe have been struggling to keep world powers united against Iran, but Russia and China had been reluctant go along with any deal that mentioned sanctions. The first signal that they were willing to consider stronger measures came in January when they agreed to report Iran to the Security Council. Previously, Iran's violations of the nuclear nonproliferation regime had been dealt with at the IAEA in Vienna.
But soon after, Russia seemed to have second thoughts about its support for Iranian censure and prolonged the discussions at the Security Council. Meanwhile, Iran was defiant. In early April, Iran announced that it had enriched uranium with centrifuges at its Natanz nuclear plant, flouting international demands that it halt enrichment-related activities.
A round of intensive diplomacy in the past week, including a call by President Bush to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin on Tuesday and the U.S. decision to open the door to direct talks for the first time since the Iran hostage crisis in 1979, helped win Russian backing.
Alissa J. Rubin writes for the Los Angeles Times.