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Iran nuclear talks with US, other powers stall in Vienna

A round of talks on Iran's nuclear program in Vienna, at which the US and other powers were hoping to nail down a deal, faltered on Tuesday.

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The deal is regarded as win-win, since the process would take Iran's nuclear stockpile off the table for a substantial period and Iran would be accorded a measure of credit as a responsible power – and current tensions over how the international community should respond to a nation that only recently admitted to another secret centrifuge plant near Qom, would be delayed. IAEA inspectors say they will visit the Qom plant Oct. 25.

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Glaring headlines

Yet on Tuesday the Vienna atmospherics were upstaged by glaring headlines out of Tehran. Iran's foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki singled out France as "an untrustworthy party," widely seen as retribution against France for taking a leading position against Iranian violations of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and for being a champion for sanctions. In 1975, when Iran was still ruled by the Shah, Iran bought 10% in French uranium processor Eurodif to secure a supply of nuclear fuel. Since the Islamic revolution, France has not delivered any fuel to Iran and the country's negotiators say this means they can't trust French involvement in any new deals.

One solution to Iranian objections to French participation discussed during the day would allow the Russians to subcontract Phase Two of the nuclear reprocessing to the French without specifically making reference to the French work in any final contract. When asked if the Iranians were showing a new openness to talks, a French diplomat said, "It is difficult to say if the Iranian approach is different. We judge by results."

Iran's top diplomat in Tehran also attempted to stake out the high ground by claiming that Iran's presence in Vienna is itself proof that Iran is a responsible power, and that it will "never abandon its legal and obvious right" to pursue the peaceful use of nuclear power.

On Monday, Tehran said that if talks failed Iran would begin to reprocess on its own – and also accused the US and UK of having a hidden hand in the bloody suicide attack on its Revolutionary Guard in western Iran that killed over 30 people, a charge both countries promptly denied.

Diplomats in Vienna said that Iran typically is a tough interlocutor, and stressed the historic nature of talks that were inconceivable only a few years ago. Iran was earlier in the decade labeled a member of an "axis of evil" by US President George W. Bush. Talks between Iran and the US had to wait for both US and Iranian elections. Some diplomats here said they weren't possible any earlier, and that instant results were unrealistic.

Some diplomats in Vienna felt that neither the Iranian nor the Russian delegates were senior enough to warrant a final deal. While the Obama team includes deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman, the Iranian team is made up of its Vienna based UN diplomats, led by Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh. This does not mean a binding agreement can't be achieved, said IAEA officials, "but there is at least one further step that would be required," said one.

"The level of the Iranian team is not high," said a Western diplomat associated with one of the teams.

Iranian analyst Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment in Washington argues there is not yet enough "internal consensus" in Tehran "on significant divides" between different factions to make substantial progress.

Could Israel take unilateral action against Iran's nuclear program if talks fail?