In the diplomatic swirl around Iran's controversial nuclear program, a meeting set for Wednesday between Tehran's top negotiator Ali Larijani, and European foreign policy chief Javier Solana, was meant to bring a rare moment of clarity.
But that meeting was postponed until Friday, the day after senior negotiators of the UN Security Council's permanent five members and Germany are expected to meet in Berlin to discuss economic sanctions in response to Iran's nuclear fuel work.
Iran appears in no rush, emboldened by a combination of factors, say analysts, which range from an ironclad belief in the rightness of its nuclear case, to record-high oil prices, and the state of conflicts in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan that Tehran believes have given Iran an advantage over US and Israeli foes.
"Iran does not feel the need to compromise on this; they are creating facts on the ground [by efforts to enrich uranium]," says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
"If this argument was taking place in 2002, when oil was $25 per barrel and the Iraq war was not yet prosecuted, Iran's calculations would be much, much different," says Mr. Sadjadpour. "I don't think in Washington there has been a recognition of the repercussions of the Iraq war – that it has essentially given new life to this regime in Tehran."
Pressure on Iran mounted Wednesday, despite divisions over the extent to which the six Western powers were willing to impose sanctions, much less resort to eventual military force.
"Iran's response is not satisfactory," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Wednesday. "We won't close the door to negotiations but we, the international community, won't stand by and watch as Iran harms the rules of the UN nuclear authorities."
Last year, Iran ended a 2-1/2-year suspension of uranium enrichment efforts. Such work can yield nuclear fuel for power plants or – if enriched to a much higher level – for atomic weapons, which the US claims is Iran's true aim. In April, conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared that Iran had achieved low-level uranium enrichment suitable for nuclear power plants.
Now on the table is a US-EU incentives package, hand-delivered to Iran last June, that requires Iran to stop enrichment work before talks can begin. Iran has ruled out such a suspension, ignoring a Security Council deadline last week, and has responded with a 21-page counterproposal.
The postponed Larijani-Solana meeting was intended to clarify outstanding questions on both sides before Thursday's Berlin meeting, between the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany. Russia and China have not yet endorsed UN sanctions. Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov – whose government is building an $800 million nuclear power plant for Iran – balked again on Wednesday, saying "use of these [sanctions] or not still needs to be defined [and] commensurate to the presence of a real threat to international security."
"Both Iran and the West are making a mistake by not beginning the negotiations," says Nasser Hadian-Jazy, a political science professor at Tehran University. "Larijani will tell Solana: 'Suspension [of uranium enrichment] should not be the precondition to begin negotiations, but the result of negotiations."
Iranian leaders remember with disdain the dynamic during Iran's 2-1/2-year voluntary suspension, which it agreed to during negotiations with the EU. Back then, Iran had to "almost beg" the EU to schedule meetings, says Mr. Hadian-Jazy. Because Iran had already suspended its enrichment work, "the West was not under any pressure of time, and delayed the meetings," says Hadian-Jazy. "But if this one cascade [of Iranian centrifuges, to enrich uranium] is running, then the West will be under the pressure of time, and the chances of finalizing a deal are much more."
That view is bolstered in Iran by a belief that it is being singled out for censure – even though as a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran is allowed under safeguard to have the complete nuclear fuel cycle.
"The argument of nonproliferation experts [is] against enrichment, saying Iran will acquire the know-how to enrich that can be applied to a nuclear weapons program," says Sadjadpour of ICG. "Iran is saying: 'We already have that know-how. The genie is already out of the bottle...it's a fait accompli.' "
As the nuclear diplomacy unfolds, Presidents George Bush and Ahmadinejad have jacked up their antagonistic rhetoric. "The world's free nations will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon," Mr. Bush said Tuesday, adding that Iran's leaders were "tyrants" as dangerous as Al Qaeda that would not be permitted to attain "the tools of mass murder."
Ahmadinejad replied on Wednesday: "I am telling him [Bush] that all the world is threatening you since the general path that the world is taking is toward worshipping God and divinity.... The massive stream is moving and you are nothing in comparison to God's will."
Such confidence in Tehran hearkens back to the fiery anti-Western sentiment that defined the first years after the 1979 Islamic revolution.
"The Iranian view at this moment is that they are on a winning streak," says Ali Ansari, an Iran expert at St. Andrews University in Scotland, and author of "Confronting Iran: The Failure of American Foreign Policy and the Next Great Conflict in the Middle East."
"They feel they've done it themselves, and in fact they haven't – they've just been the beneficiaries of pretty incoherent policies from Washington," says Mr. Ansari. "The trouble we face now is that the US and Iran have given themselves red lines, and someone is going to have to climb down," says Ansari, adding that Iran expects the US to do so. "Iranian politicians do not fully understand the depth of the negative image of Iran in America."