Last-minute negotiations between Iran and Germany, Britain and France failed to produce an agreement in the ongoing nuclear crisis. Time is running out to find a solution before the issue goes to the Security Council.
EU officials are not too hopeful that Friday's talks will end the crisis
"Unfortunately we were not able to reach agreement today," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters after talks between France, Britain, Germany and Iran in Vienna ended after just two hours.
Iran had called for the last-minute meeting with the EU representatives ahead of a scheduled session with the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Monday. The UN watchdog is to make an assessment of Iran's nuclear program that will then be sent to the UN Security Council for deliberation over possible punitive action such as sanctions.
Racing against the clock
"Time is running out," Steinmeier said after the talks in Vienna with Iran's top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani failed to bring improvement. "If we want success we have to act now," he added.
The German foreign minister regretted that although the talks "were carried out in a constructive atmosphere" they were unable to reach agreement.
Prior to the meeting there had appeared little room for compromise, with Tehran insisting on its right to enrich uranium and Europe and the United States saying Iran must give up the process, which makes nuclear reactor fuel but also atomic bomb material.
"Unfortunately, we could not obtain an agreement with Mr. Larijani," French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said following the talks at the German ambassador's residence in Vienna.
Also present at the hurriedly-arranged meeting, which had been requested by Larijani, was European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and a British official representing Foreign Minister Jack Straw, who was ill.
EU demands full cooperation
Earlier this week the EU troika warned Tehran in writing that progress was totally dependent on Iran stopping uranium enrichment and cooperating with UN nuclear inspections.
Ali Larijani with Javier Solana
"Anything short of this would result in a public disagreement, which would set back our shared objectives," according to a letter from the trio's foreign ministers and Solana obtained by AFP.
The United States had also voiced skepticism about the prospects of success of Friday's talks. "We're under no illusions," US State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said in Washington.
Talks with Moscow fail
Larijani had arrived in Vienna after talks in Moscow also failed to produce an agreement on a Russian proposal to enrich uranium for Iran on Russian soil -- thus giving Tehran the fuel it needs but not the technology.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Friday that a deal with Iran on its nuclear enrichment program was still possible before the March 6 meeting of the IAEA, the Interfax news agency reported. "There always is an opportunity to reach an agreement," Interfax quoted Lavrov as saying in response to a question about whether it was still possible to negotiate an agreement with Iran preventing its referral to the UN Security Council at Monday's meeting of the atomic watchdog.
Security Council action pending
IAEA's meeting hall in Vienna
The IAEA had initially on February 4 reported Iran to the UN Security Council but allowed a month for diplomacy before the world body decides what measures, if any, to take against Tehran.
The IAEA has consistently called on Iran to suspend uranium enrichment as a confidence-building measure. But the Islamic republic last month fed a 10-centrifuge research cascade at a facility in Natanz with the feedstock uranium gas, signaling it was pushing ahead with enrichment it says is essential for a civilian energy program.
In a report earlier this week, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei said Iran had failed to answer crucial questions about its nuclear program after three years of IAEA investigations, although he stopped short of saying Tehran was making atomic weapons.
Earlier EU talks with Iran -- aimed at promising Tehran trade and security benefits in return for guarantees it is not seeking to acquire atomic weapons -- had been torpedoed by the Islamic republic's insistence on enrichment.