Iran's decision Thursday to pursue talks with Europe's three major powers over its nuclear ambitions prompted a suspicious response from the United States which favors direct compliance with United Nations regulations.
The smiles suggest further dialogue but the US is not convinced
Representatives of Britain, France and Germany met with Iranian officials in Vienna on Thursday to ask Tehran to reassure the world that it was not secretly developing atomic weapons. Iran responded by suggesting dialogue with the EU trio on the contentious subject of its nuclear ambitions would continue in the coming days.
"We are at an initial stage, matters have to be considered on both sides," said Sirus Naseri, a consultant to the Iranian delegation. Speaking to reporters after the two sides met for three hours in Vienna, Naseri said: "What has been agreed is that we will continue the dialogue." He added, "I think we'll get together in a matter of a few days." Naseri said the next meeting might also be in Vienna.
However, the United States responded with suspicion to Iran's response, refusing to comment on the European offer or whether Iran would accept it, saying it was interested only in whether Tehran would meet its obligations to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
"The important thing about the meeting is what the Iranians say now ... as to whether or not, yes or no, they are going to comply with the requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency board of directors," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
History of suspicion
"That's what we'll be looking for," he told reporters. "I don't know if it'll come today. I don't know if will come tomorrow. Unfortunately, history would lead us to think that the answer's going to be no."
Washington wants the IAEA, which since February 2003 has been investigating Iran on US claims that the Islamic Republic has a covert nuclear weapons program, to send Iran before the UN Security Council, which could impose sanctions.
The US has said it will push the IAEA governing board to refer the matter to the Security Council at its next meeting on November 25 if Iran has not agreed to the agency's demands. Boucher reiterated that stance on Thursday, saying that it was up to Iran to provide the right answer if it wants to avoid such a referral.
November deadline in US sights
US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.
"If it's not a yes, and it's not a yes by November, then clearly we'll be facing a situation in the board where everybody knows that Iran has failed to comply and (they) should be referred further to the UN Security Council," he said. "That's the question. The question is on the Iranian side."
The United States appeared resolute that Iran should comply with the IAEA and that any other dealing would detract from the issue surrounding compliance with the UN nuclear watchdog. Washington has frowned on the incentives offered by Britain, France and Germany; the same incentives which brought Iran back into discussions on Thursday.
According to a confidential text obtained by news agency AFP and confirmed by diplomats in Vienna, Britain, France and Germany made the offer of valuable nuclear technology if Tehran complies and threatening possible UN sanctions if it does not.
"Carrot and stick" measures on the table
The Europeans are now ready to promise Iran a range of measures, including access to nuclear fuel for its civilian reactors and recognizing Iran's right to a peaceful nuclear power program, according to a seven-page confidential paper the trio presented to the G8 group of industrialized nations last week in Washington.
"We would support the acquisition by Iran of a light water research reactor," the paper said, adding that the EU would "be ready to resume negotiations on an EU/Iran trade and cooperation agreement," and back Russia's building of a nuclear reactor for Iran.
The European trio has so far opposed the US favored strategy of using the UN route as the only incentive for dialogue, favoring instead a policy of "constructive engagement" to get Tehran to cooperate.
Dialogue may make way for action
The United Nations Security Council.
However, the EU plan has limits. If Iran does not carry out a full, verified suspension of enrichment, the European trio would join the United States in calling for it to be hauled before the Security Council, the confidential paper said.
The Europeans said they were prepared to go even further and "if an initial political call to Iran were not successful, the Security Council could then consider making the suspension mandatory. It could also consider strengthening the powers of the IAEA to carry out inspections in Iran," the document added.
The next step would be sanctions under Article 41 of the UN charter, the Europeans said, adding however that "we do not need to consider that in more detail at this stage.