Iran Wednesday pulled back from the brink of confrontation with Europe and the United States over its nuclear program, gaining more time to try to strike a bargain with the European Union and delaying the chances of being referred to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions.
In talks in Geneva involving senior Iranian officials and the foreign ministers of Britain, Germany and France, a two-month breathing space was agreed to, meaning that Tehran would continue to keep its nuclear fuel enrichment program frozen while the three E.U. states prepare an offer meant to obtain a halt to its enrichment activities.
The prospects for a settlement that will satisfy all parties look slim, but the make-or-break talks in Geneva salvaged a dialogue that was heading for collapse. Deadlock Wednesday could have paved the way for a more dangerous showdown between Iran and the West.
The agreement -- if it sticks, and according to Western diplomats the Iranians are notoriously tricky negotiators, regularly "reinterpreting" what had been agreed to -- means that Tehran should avoid being referred to the Security Council when the International Atomic Energy Agency has a board meeting in Vienna next month. In return, according to British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, Tehran will maintain a freeze on all aspects of uranium enrichment.
The Iranians appear determined to restart processing raw uranium ore into uranium hexafluoride gas, the substance that is fed into high-speed centrifuges to be converted into nuclear fuel for power stations -- or into fissile material for nuclear warheads. Iran insists that its purposes are purely peaceful, a claim that lacks credibility in Western capitals. Iran agreed with the E.U. trio last November to suspend the uranium enrichment while talks proceeded. It is now itching to resume the enrichment, and sounds disenchanted with the incentives being offered by the Europeans in return for a permanent suspension.
Hassan Rohani, the chief Iranian negotiator, said after three hours of talks in Geneva Wednesday that the Europeans had until the end of July to come up with a better, more concrete offer. Straw's indication that the Iranian uranium enrichment freeze would remain in place was confirmed by Rohani. "We will remain committed to all our promises," the Iranian said in reference to the freeze pledge last November. He sounded optimistic about a deal, saying that an agreement with the E.U. troika could be reached quickly. But his comments contrasted with more threatening statements being issued from Tehran.
The contradictory signals are expected to continue, as Iran is in the midst of a presidential election campaign. Diplomats do not expect a clear line to emerge on the nuclear crisis until it is clear who is the new Iranian president and what his options are.
There is also dissension within the Western camp, with Britain taking a hard line on the talks that is closer to the U.S. stance, Germany reluctant to go down the road of sanctions against Iran, and France in between. The Americans are pushing for Iran to be reported to the Security Council. With Germany suddenly plunged into an election campaign, the chances are bleaker that a concerted European hard line will prevail before September.
Wednesday's talks were preceded by a meeting between European and American officials in Brussels on Tuesday and by recent talks between Straw and Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state, at which the Americans signaled they would not accept any softening of the European stance.
The Iranians are recognized as being astute bargainers, exploiting every crack in the European position. As previously in the two-year game of diplomatic brinkmanship, Wednesday's agreement suggests that a short-term truce has been reached before the battle is rejoined.