Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has brusquely rejected international calls for Iran to suspend uranium enrichment and said the United States and Israel would never dare attack the Islamic republic. The Iranian president's defiant stance yesterday came as western diplomats characterised Tehran's response to a three-week-old international offer of incentives if Iran curbs its nuclear programme as disappointing and non-committal. The Iranian reply came in a formal letter submitted by Manouchehr Mottaki, Iran's foreign minister, on Friday.
A western official who has seen the letter said it contained little that was new and did not address the key demand that Iran suspend uranium enrichment. "The letter didn't provide a very helpful basis for going forwards," the Europe-based official told The National. But, he added: "All sides want negotiations. We are still considering what the letter means and how to respond to it." World powers remain cautiously hopeful that a mechanism can be found to enter negotiations with Iran. The alternatives look bleak. UN, EU and US sanctions have yet to make Iran bend, while even senior US military commanders have warned that military action would be unwise.
Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, said yesterday he had accepted a request for a meeting this month from Saeed Jalili, Iran's top nuclear negotiator. That suggests neither side is willing to regard Iran's letter as Tehran's last word, although western diplomats said such a meeting would not in itself halt the momentum for further sanctions. Mr Solana cautioned against any expectation of an early breakthrough.
"I hope that we'll be able to continue the dialogue in the coming weeks," he said. "We'll see, but I don't want to give the impression of being too optimistic." Iran has sent mixed signals in recent days, highlighting the power struggle over finding a way forwards. Despite Mr Ahmadinejad's habitually tough rhetoric, other hardline figures have spoken optimistically that a compromise can be found and hailed a "new atmosphere" in their country's dealings with the West on the nuclear issue.
The Europe-based official said foreign diplomats were relying heavily on deciphering the different messages from Iranian leaders to determine if progress could be made. Professor Gary Sick, who studies Iran at Columbia University in New York, said they were right to do so. "If there really is a power struggle going on in Iran you should look for the positive signals which are coming from the people who really want change over the objections of the president," he said.
Prof 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 1979-80 US Embassy hostage crisis in Tehran. Verbal communication between the two sides could prove more important than written texts, Prof Sick said. Before the delivery of Mr Mottaki's letter on Friday, Mr Solana received a phone call from Mr Jalili that the EU foreign policy chief's office described as "constructive" and "positive".
Similarly, some influential Iranian leaders are said to have expressed interest in an offer made verbally by Mr Solana in which the West would freeze measures to toughen sanctions if Iran froze any expansion of its nuclear work during a six-week, pre-negotiation period. Iran did not respond to the so-called "freeze-for-freeze" proposal in Mr Mottaki's letter, although there is hope it may be accepted as a face-saving way to enter full negotiations.
Mr Ahmadinejad is understandably loath to compromise: he has vociferously championed Iran's uranium enrichment programme and any concession now would be a major setback for him as he prepares for a re-election bid next year. He had kept a low profile on the nuclear issue in recent days but broke his silence yesterday. "On one side they [world powers] ask to negotiate and on the other they threaten and say that we must give in to their illegal demands and renounce our rights," he said.
The international offer to Iran was hand-delivered last month by Mr Solana on behalf of the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany. The package deal offered a range of technological, political and economic incentives provided Iran suspends uranium enrichment. Iran's critics, particularly in Washington, will feel Tehran is playing for time. But others believe Tehran may be sincere in its professed desire for negotiations: it wants to eliminate any risk of an Israeli or US attack for the remainder of the Bush administration and in the meantime improve the atmosphere between Tehran and Washington in preparation for better relations if Barack Obama wins the White House. If so, Iran is unlikely to make any significant concessions before then.
Prof Sick believes Iran may genuinely want a deal. "Now that they have made their point about being able to construct and operate a nuclear infrastructure, they may feel it is time to stop standing on principle while shooting themselves in the foot," he said. "The sanctions are a constant drag on the oil industry and the economy. There is a strong current in Iranian leadership circles that Iran wants to have a more constructive and profitable commercial and political relationship with the rest of the world, and the nuclear shouting match interferes at every level."
Prof Sick doubts Iran has been "spooked" by Israeli and American sabre rattling. Israel recently held large-scale military exercises that appeared to be a practice run on striking Iran while Shaul Mofaz, Israel's deputy prime minister, said last month that Israeli strikes on Iran looked "unavoidable" given Tehran's nuclear progress. Prof Sick pointed out there were times when the United States had three aircraft carriers in the Gulf and yet "the Iranians seemed totally unmoved".
While western diplomats attempt to decipher the conflicting signals from Tehran, Iranian officials are also watching closely for divisions within Washington. George W Bush, the US president, said last week that diplomacy was his first option to address the stand-off but repeated that "all options" - code for military action - were still on the table. At the same time, America's top military officer warned that a strike on Iran would be "extremely stressful" for US forces. Adm Mike Mullen said the United States was already fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Opening a third front would be "very challenging, with consequences that would be difficult to predict", he said.
Regardless, that did not stop the US navy from saying yesterday it was carrying out an exercise in the Gulf, days after vowing that Iran would not be allowed to block the Strait of Hormuz, the waterway that carries crude from the world's largest oil-exporting region. email@example.com