As the clock runs down, Iranian negotiators are continuing talks with their Russian counterparts on a possible deal that would defuse concerns over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Progress has been modest, at best.
How far will Iran go in playing with nuclear fire?
Russia called Monday on Iran to suspend uranium enrichment work, saying this was required as part of a broader plan to allay fears over Tehran's nuclear program.
"The Russian proposal to create a joint venture for the enrichment of uranium in Russia is part of a general effort to remove concerns on the Iranian nuclear program," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told journalists.
German Foreign Minister Steinmeier remains skeptical
"We are convinced that, among other components of this effort, a moratorium on enrichment of uranium in Iran is required until all issues have been clarified by the experts" of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), he added.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, however, reacted skeptically to the prospects of a breaktrhough.
"Iran does not really have a new strategy," Steinmeier said. "They still want to drive a wedge into the international community, but will not succeed."
The IAEA board of governors meets on March 6 to decide whether to refer Iran to the UN Security Council over its nuclear program.
A special case
Lavrov's comments provided one of the clearest indications to date that Russia was in line with the European Union and the United States in diplomatic efforts to persuade Iran to compromise in granting a measure of international control over the most sensitive aspects of its nuclear program.
Russia is building Iran's first nuclear power station but shares Western concerns that Tehran may use its civilian nuclear program to camouflage plans to build nuclear weapons.
A reactor building of Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant
While vehemently denying his, Iran insists on total control over the uranium enrichment process which can be used to produce both nuclear fuel and the core ingredient of nuclear bombs.
Iran says it is entitled to an independent nuclear energy program like any other country that has signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The West says the fact that it hid parts of its nuclear program for 18 years and has called for Israel to be "erased" make Iran a special case.
The Russian proposal, under which Moscow and Tehran would establish a joint venture located on Russian soil and under Russian control for the purpose of enriching uranium for the Islamic republic's nuclear power stations, is backed by the United States and the European Union.
Threats from Teheran
Fears over Iran's nuclear designs were heightened last September when Tehran announced it was ending a voluntary two-year moratorium on uranium enrichment work. The IAEA has called on Iran to return to that moratorium pending further investigation.
Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov is mediating between Iran and the West
Iran balked again Monday at calls for it to back down in its standoff with Russia and the West, with a senior nuclear negotiator quoted by state television saying Tehran saw "no reason" to do so.
Lavrov's comments came after other Russian officials downplayed progress on the Russian compromise plan, saying there was still work to be done to reach agreement and warning that time was quickly running out ahead of a March 6 deadline.
"This is a complex issue and the negotiations are difficult," Russia's chief nuclear negotiator with Iran, Sergei Kiriyenko, told the official ITAR-TASS news agency in an interview on his return to Moscow following weekend talks in Tehran.
"There is little time left for further agreements," he said.
A half-step forward
ITAR-TASS quoted an unnamed source within the Russian delegation sent to Iran for the weekend talks as saying their result amounted to "a small half-step forward."
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is known for his explosive rhetoric
Tehran was still insisting that all scientific research and development work on uranium enrichment be carried out within Iran, a condition which the source said "defeats the very purpose of the joint venture" for uranium enrichment in Russia.
"Russia cannot go forward with creation of a joint venture under such terms," the source said.
Negotiations between Iran and Russia will resume Tuesday in Moscow, a senior Russian official told AFP on Monday. The official, speaking on condition he not be named, said Ali Husseini Tash, deputy chief of Iran's national security council and one of the Islamic republic's top nuclear negotiators, "will be in Moscow tomorrow for talks with the Russian security council."