Iran, studiously ignoring western deadlines and ultimatums, is said to have delivered another characteristically evasive response to Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, on an offer from six world powers to end the nuclear crisis. Britain and the United States had warned that unless they had a positive answer from Tehran by the end of Tuesday, the international community would have "no choice" but to ask the UN Security Council to take further punitive measures.
But analysts of Iran argued that Tehran is genuinely interested in negotiations. "They have indicated unequivocally that they are interested for the talks to proceed," said Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University in New York. Iranian officials said a letter handed to Mr Solana was not a response to the six-week-old offer of economic, political and technological incentives. A spokesman for Mr Solana said yesterday that no letter had yet been received but there was often a delay between Iranian announcements and their delivery.
The missive was merely a transcript of a telephone conversation Mr Solana had with Saeed Jalili, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, on Monday, an official from Iran's powerful National Security Council told the Islamic Republic's news agency. However, Mr Sick said "that Iran is genuinely interested in pursuing negotiations", but "they are going to give away as little as possible before the talks actually begin".
Mr Sick served on the US National Security Council under former presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and was the principal White House aide on Gulf affairs during the 1979-1980 US Embassy hostage crisis in Tehran. He said a recent claim by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, that Tehran had nearly doubled the number of centrifuges it had enriching uranium to 6,000 was "a classic negotiating ploy designed to convince the other side that they should hurry or things will only get worse".
Mr Sick described Iran as a "tough bargainer". "The IAEA [the UN's nuclear watchdog] has inspectors present at all the enrichment sites, and it will be interesting to see what the Iranians actually do, rather than what they say. "Mr Solana and his colleagues will have to decide whether they can accept the ambiguity of Iran's formal statements enough to continue with 'talks about talks'. If the decision is to reject the Iranian position, we are right back to where we were before."
Iran has steadfastly rejected the main condition set by the six powers - that it halts uranium enrichment - but has expressed interest in negotiations on the six-power package. Iranian officials have also welcomed recent American overtures, including Washington's unprecedented decision to send a senior diplomat to direct nuclear talks last month and its expression of interest in opening a diplomatic mission in Tehran.
Some analysts suspect that Tehran's strategy is to do enough to avoid confrontation with Washington while buying time until the US elections in November, hoping that if Barack Obama, the Democratic Party's presumptive nominee, wins the White House he will enter unconditional negotiations. The Iranian letter did not address a so-called freeze-for-freeze proposal aimed at paving the way for full negotiations, Iranian officials said. Under this formula, the international community would not pursue further sanctions against Iran for six weeks if Tehran freezes its uranium enrichment programme during that period.
Iranian ambivalence has frustrated the West since Mr Solana first hand-delivered the "very generous" offer to Tehran in June on behalf of the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France - the five permanent members of the UN Security Council - along with Germany. Tehran has sent out, in turn, conciliatory and provocative signals. The six powers had hoped for a definitive response yesterday to their incentives package. The June offer was followed by a "disappointing" meeting with Iranian nuclear negotiators last month at which a senior US diplomat was present for the first time, marking a major concession by Washington. Iran was given until last weekend to respond to the incentives package; the deadline expired without an Iranian reply.
Iran watchers said if the West is serious about negotiations, it is counterproductive to set ultimatums, which Iranian leaders, who insist on being treated on equal terms, will automatically reject. "At the end of the day Iran will give something more positive than negative, but these delays may be a way for them to show they don't respond to deadlines, ultimatums and threats," said Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council, which promotes diplomacy to resolve disputes.
"The problem is for the last six years the Bush administration has pursued foreign policy by deadlines for everyone but themselves. These deadlines have been consistently ignored so they have no credibility," Mr Parsi said. @Email:email@example.com