A day after submitting long-promised proposals supposedly aimed at defusing tensions with western powers, Iran vowed yesterday that it would not negotiate on the issue of most concern to them: its nuclear programme. Tehran delivered its offer on the same day that the United States warned that the Islamic Republic is moving closer to being able to make a nuclear bomb.
"These talks do not include Tehran's nuclear programme and legal activities in this connection," said Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's envoy to the UN's nuclear watchdog agency. Iran's characteristically defiant public stance will add to mounting domestic pressure on Barack Obama, the US president, to impose tough new sanctions on Tehran, including a possible embargo on petrol imports. However, Iran experts, although not optimistic, cautioned that the Iranian proposals, which apparently failed to address Tehran's nuclear programme, might be a starting point if both sides are genuinely committed to solving the crisis through diplomatic means.
"The Iranians are not going to accept without a fight on the parameters of the [international] proposals. It's important for them to have some of their own parameters included," said Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council, which promotes dialogue between Tehran and Washington. "There's going to be a negotiation about the shape of the table before there's a negotiation about substance," he said, while stressing he had not seen the Iranian proposals.
Mr Soltanieh said: "Tehran is prepared to have fair and substantive talks about various problems, including the guarantee of access by all countries to nuclear energy and preventing the proliferation of nuclear arms." Western officials who saw the as yet undisclosed Iranian proposals portrayed them as nebulous and hastily-written and said they ignored the vital question of Tehran's nuclear programme. The last point was effectively confirmed by several senior Iranian officials this week, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who declared on Monday: "From our point of view, Iran's nuclear issue is over." Instead, he offered to discuss "global issues" with Mr Obama, provided the international media are present.
Iran denies seeking anything beyond a civilian nuclear power programme to generate electricity. But it has failed to heed UN Security Council demands that it stop enriching uranium. The UN's nuclear watchdog also said in its latest, recently released report that Tehran had not co-operated with the agency's investigation "to exclude the possibility of military dimensions to Iran's nuclear programme".
Tehran's critics will see the Iranian proposals as offering a mere semblance of compromise to buy time and sow divisions at the UN Security Council, setting the stage for a diplomatic showdown over new sanctions between Western powers on one side and China and Russia on the other. Washington has set an end of September deadline for Iran to respond to a six-month-old invitation to talks on its nuclear programme from the US, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany.
Professor Gary Sick, a preeminent Iran expert at Columbia University in New York, said there would be "a tremendous amount of media noise in the next month or so coming out of Congress and elsewhere saying that Iran has failed to meet its responsibilities and there's no choice now but just to go for sanctions". He had not seen the Iranian proposals and said it was "entirely possible" they offered nothing new but suggested much could depend on the real intentions of both sides. Iran, for instance, had talked in favour of non-proliferation. "Do you take that not as an answer but as a beginning point?" Prof Sick said in an interview. "If you are committed to trying to provide greater monitoring and inspection - greater transparency of Iran's [nuclear] programme, then you look at it in terms of what kind of openings does this provide."
Iran's post-election turmoil, however, does not augur well for a diplomatic breakthrough. Even in the best of times, Iran's complex Islamic power structure was never well-suited to making clear decisions on changing strategic direction. If Washington genuinely wants serious negotiations with Iran, it will want to be sure the government in Tehran can deliver. "I think there are major questions about them being capable of doing that," Prof Sick said. "So the odds are stacked very strongly in favour of rejecting this [the Iranian proposals] out of hand and doing nothing more with it."
The US warned on Wednesday that the Islamic Republic is nearly, or already, in possession of enough low-enriched uranium to produce a bomb, if it is further enriched to weapons-grade level. "Ongoing enrichment activity moves Iran closer to a dangerous and destabilising possible breakout capacity," said Glyn Davies, the US ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN's nuclear watchdog. "We have serious concerns that Iran is deliberately attempting, at a minimum, to preserve a nuclear weapons option."
They were the most strongly worded remarks yet from the Obama administration on Iran's alleged nuclear threat and clearly designed to rally the international community behind a united response to Iran's steadily growing nuclear prowess. But a fourth set of UN sanctions against Iran could well prove ineffective or even backfire by enabling Mr Ahmadinejad's embattled government to blame outside powers for any ensuing misery. Prof Sick said: "Sanctions aren't going to solve the problem at all but it does give the impression of doing something."