Six world powers led by the United States are considering a further set of UN sanctions against Iran over its disputed nuclear program, after European foreign-policy chief Javier Solana said he was "disappointed" with five hours of talks with Iran on Friday.
Iranian leaders have vowed never again to suspend uranium enrichment, as demanded by the United Nations' Security Council, citing increased cooperation with the UN's nuclear watchdog agency that they believe should allay fears about Iran's nuclear ambitions. Iran's new top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, had promised to bring "new initiatives" to the meeting.
But with no date set for future meetings, the failure of the talks stalls an 18-month Western effort to impose limits on Iran's disputed nuclear program.
A fresh UN sanctions resolution is likely to be circulated this week that would add to two modest UN measures already in place. The US recently slapped on unilateral sanctions; veto-wielding Russia and China, which both do extensive business with Iran, have yet to voice support.
"Everybody's got to take a deep breath, step back, and adopt a new approach to negotiations, which recognizes the main issue is about stopping the Iranians from acquiring weapons – not about enrichment per se," says Gareth Evans, president of the International Crisis Group, who was in Tehran meeting with senior Iranian officials.
The five permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany, met Saturday to consider next steps on Iran's program. Iran continues to report significant progress in enrichment and demands that its nuclear dossier be removed from the Council agenda.
The US says Iran will "never be allowed" to acquire the bomb, and refuses to rule out a military option.
The latest UN report on Iran's nuclear program, in mid-November, is among the most positive to date, noting that Iran had worked to resolve remaining questions, though it had not been "proactive" in doing so.
The West, says Mr. Evans, a former Australian foreign minister, should recognize that its negotiating strategy has been "spectacularly unsuccessful so far, [during] which Iran has moved from essentially zero centrifuge capability to 3,000" spinning centrifuges. Those centrifuges can enrich uranium into fuel for energy, at a low level, or into material for a weapon, at a far higher level.
But the bar has also been raised for Iran, says Evans. For years, it failed to declare sensitive parts of its program, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been unbendingly defiant. That means, Evans says, that "in order to satisfy people, [Iran has] got to be prepared, given all their past history, to accept a much more intrusive [inspection] regime."
That means going beyond the safeguards of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which Iran is a signatory, and even beyond the provisions of the Additional Protocol, which include snap inspections. For a time, Iran voluntarily embraced the protocol, but stopped after its nuclear dossier was referred to the Security Council.
Iran denies it wants a nuclear weapon. In a letter Friday to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Iran had "no difficulty with taking transparency measures," had gone "far beyond its treaty obligations," and that International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors had carried out 2,500 days' worth of inspections to confirm that "allegations [of a military program] have been completely baseless."
Still, the diplomatic dance continues. News agencies quoted a French diplomat saying that Mr. Solana's meeting had been a "disaster," that Tehran wanted to start talks again from scratch, and that Solana "left asking himself what the future of the negotiations could be."
"I have to admit that after five hours of meetings I expected more, and therefore I am disappointed," Solana said after his meeting with Jalili, a hard-line ally of Ahmadinejad who took over after the surprise resignation of former nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, a far more seasoned negotiator.
Saturday, Jalili said Iran was not to blame. "[W]e defended the Iranian nation's rights and stressed fulfilling our duties and that the Iranian nation will not accept anything that goes beyond the NPT," he said. "If some people have become disappointed because they cannot deprive Iran of its natural rights, then this is another matter."
Jalili, speaking at a nuclear conference in Tehran before meeting Solana, said that "Iran has fulfilled all its obligations under the safeguard agreement, so it insists on the rights of the NPT." He said Iran believed all weapons of mass destruction to be "illegal, illegitimate, and ... useless" – and that "the language of force does not work" against Iran.
Jalili said Iran's experience of being deprived of airplane spare parts from the US for years, and imposition of multiple layers of UN and US sanctions, meant Iranians had little trust in the West. "They need to build confidence with the Iranian people," he said.
But analysts say the onus is on Iran to build confidence that its nuclear program is exclusively peaceful. "If the same [positive] IAEA report was published two years ago, we might be in a different situation, but now it has gone too far," says Alexander Pikayev, an expert at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
"If the US convinces the IAEA Board to have a negative [interpretation of the IAEA report], it will be difficult for Russia and China to resist more sanctions," says Mr. Pikayev, speaking in Tehran. Moscow is in a dilemma, he says, partly because Iran has pursued several nuclear paths, including a heavy water reactor: "The Kremlin does not want a nuclear-armed Iran, and there are some grounds to doubt Iran's intentions."
Russia last week finalized preparation of nuclear fuel for the nuclear reactor it is building at Bushehr, which is to be shipped – with no fixed date yet – six months before the plant goes on line.
Iranian officials say that any resurrection of the Additional Protocol requires a vote by Iran's parliament to revoke a law, passed when Iran's nuclear case was first sent to the Security Council, to forbid the government from cooperating beyond the minimum requirements of the NPT.
That dynamic could change – and the snap inspections be reinstituted – if the nuclear file were returned exclusively to the purview of the IAEA, says Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi in an interview.
"That would be a very positive move by the Security Council, and we would act accordingly," says Mr. Araghchi. "Whenever they pass a resolution against us and put more sanctions against us, we react. I'm sure for positive gestures, we would also react."