At first, the negotiations at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria seemed to hold real promise. After the introductory round of talks late Monday, a senior U.S. official said the Iranians had "engaged constructively".
But on Tuesday, Iran reportedly precipitated a delay by suddenly announcing that France should be excluded from any deal — apparently the latest twist in a long-running business dispute between the French and the Iranians that dates back to the 1970s.
Above: Frederic Mondoloni, head of the French delegation, left, walks with Iran's Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, right, during a meeting of delegates from Iran, the U.S. Russia and France, Oct. 20, 2009, at Vienna's International Center.
The actual content of the Vienna negotiations was meant to be technical. In principle, Iran had agreed to send most of its 3,000 pound stockpile of uranium to Russia to be re-enriched. It would then go to France to be made into metal fuel plates for a medical research reactor at Tehran University. The Vienna talks were supposed to have hammered out details on cost, transport, insurance and delivery of the radioactive material.
However, the context of these discussions is highly political. Iran is already in violation of United Nations Security Council Resolutions that order it to stop enriching uranium.
Diplomats are now wondering whether Iran's last-minute objections to France's presence at the table in Vienna are in fact a thinly disguised attempt to derail the whole process.
If so, it would send a powerful signal, said a U.S. official, who added that the Vienna meeting is Iran's chance to show it can deal in good faith. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said U.S. diplomats have made it clear that Washington is running out of patience.
If these talks, and another broader session scheduled for the beginning of November, fail, the U.S. will go back to the UN to push for new and more crippling sanctions against Iran.
Iran first asked the International Atomic energy Agency for help in finding replacement fuel for its research reactor last summer. The reactor takes uranium enriched to about 20 percent — much higher than the 5 percent Iran already makes as fuel for power generating reactors.
The IAEA and U.S. officials quickly saw an opportunity to kill several birds with one diplomatic stone. If Iran could be convinced to use its own uranium stockpile (already enough theoretically to make a bomb), it would not then be available for a weapons program. Successful talks could also be used to build much-needed confidence between Iran and Western countries for further, wide-ranging talks on Iran's nuclear program. And Iran would get the medical isotopes it needs.