Iran says it is ready for "constructive and serious" talks over its controversial nuclear program, but Monday spelled out a bedrock position on enriching uranium that European negotiators deem "unacceptable."
Ali Larijani, Iran's top national security official, described a "win-win game" in which Iran would carry out the entire nuclear fuel cycle on Iranian soil, while providing Europe guarantees that nuclear material that results will not be diverted for weapons use.
"We do not retreat," Mr. Larijani told journalists in Tehran Monday. "We try to have exchange with other countries; we want a logical solution.... We have hopes [about the talks]; we don't want to waste time."
But just as Iran draws its red line, Europeans are sticking to theirs, insisting that no enrichment can take place in Iran.
France's foreign minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, expressed dismay at Iran's stance Monday, saying that its insistence on enriching uranium was a "unilateral" rejection of a Russian proposal to resolve the standoff.
The Europeans and the US will support action against Iran by the UN Security Council unless there is compromise over what they see as a proliferation risk. But on Saturday, Iran approved a bill that would halt international inspections of its atomic facilities if Iran were taken before the Security Council.
Regardless of the outcome, Larijani said that enriching uranium is the next step. "Enrichment will happen, definitely," said Iran's top nuclear negotiator. "But on this path we see that some countries want confidence-building, so we set aside a special time for this. After negotiations end, enrichment will start."
Nuclear talks between Iran and Great Britain, France, and Germany - the so-called EU-3 - were suspended last August, but preliminary talks are expected to resume in a couple of weeks.
Iran has resumed conversion of uranium into gas, to prepare it for enrichment. On the table is the Russian proposal - which Larijani said has yet to be presented to the Islamic Republic as a concrete plan - for Iran to enrich uranium in Russia under international supervision.
"There is a lot of Iranian bluff at the moment," says a European diplomat. "And maybe it's not all bluff, because Iran is very confident, and they may feel they won the point and are in a strong position vis-à-vis the Europeans and US."
The UN's nuclear watchdog passed a resolution in September that was critical of Iran for past misreporting of a secret nuclear program. It demanded greater openness and threatened action.
But Iran ratcheted up cooperation, opening one sensitive military site at Parchin and permitting the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to conduct interviews requested by the agency. No action was taken by the IAEA against Iran during a Nov. 24 meeting in Vienna.
"We have to take it as [Iranian officials] say it. They feel the Europeans have to yield," says the diplomat. "This is very unpleasant for us. They reversed the rules of the game. They try to fix not only the date, but the pace of negotiations and agenda."
US officials have lobbied the IAEA for two years to bring Iran before the Security Council, alleging that Iran's nuclear-power program masks atomic weapons plans.
Tehran counters that, as a signatory to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, that has voluntarily permitted intrusive UN inspections, it is Iran's "right" to nuclear power as well as control of the entire fuel cycle. Inspections have found no smoking gun.
"There are always good technical reasons to ask for more, but the fact is the most important issues have been addressed," says the diplomat. "The Iranians are rather right when they say the file could be closed in Vienna. But the problem is one of confidence."
Recent IAEA reports fault Iran for lack of transparency. That confidence problem has been compounded by tough rhetoric from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has stated that Israel should be "wiped off the map," and from other officials.
Speaking to Revolutionary Guard forces last Wednesday, Larijani put Iran's nuclear plans into broader context.
"Too many wrong signals were sent to the West [in the past two years]," Larijani said. "If Iran turns into a nuclear power, then no one dares to challenge it because they have to pay a heavy price."
A doctrine of "active political diplomacy" will increase Iranian power to "reach such a geopolitical position that makes others tolerate us," Larijani said. "Today it's time for resistance. Time passes, but we should not hesitate because a further waste of time is not to our benefit."
So far, Iran has been able to rely on support at the UN from China and from Russia, which is building an $800 million nuclear power reactor at Bushehr. While US officials say the November decision not to send Iran to the Security Council is partly a bid to convince permanent members Russia and China to come on board, few in Tehran see any change.
"The Russian attitude in Iran is purely commercial. They have been paid in cash every six months by the Iranians for 12 years," says the diplomat. "But at the same time, the Russians realize a nuclear [weapons] Iran would be a difficult partner, even for them. How the Russians combine their security needs with their need to export is still not clear.
"The key point now is to know how far we can go with the Russian proposal, and persuade Russia to put pressure on Iran," adds the diplomat. "We need to know from Moscow: Is enrichment still a red line, or not?"
With so much at stake for the Russians, Tehran may feel it can stave off another crisis. Larijani says Iran will open all aspects of its nuclear fuel efforts "to the world," to prove the program is peaceful.
"God forbid, if we do not get a good result [from the talks]," Larijani added Monday. "There are other paths. No one can limit us."