The EU's foreign policy chief and Iran's senior nuclear negotiator tentatively agreed to meet Wednesday in Vienna in a last-ditch attempt to try and bridge differences over Tehran's nuclear program, U.N. and European officials said.
With the meeting seen as the last chance for Iran to avoid U.N. sanctions, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan threw his weight behind a negotiated solution to the impasse, saying confrontation with the Security Council "will not be in Iran's favor or that of the region."
The officials, who demanded anonymity Monday for sharing confidential information with The Associated Press, stressed the date and venue could still change despite initial agreement to meet Wednesday in the Austrian capital.
While word leaked last week that Iranian chief negotiator Ali Larijani had agreed to meet with top EU envoy Javier Solana to explore potential chances of solving the impasse, details of the talks are being officially kept secret in an apparent attempt not to jeopardize any chance of their success.
Asked to confirm the reports, Solana spokeswoman Cristina Gallach would only say "the lines of communications are being kept open" between both sides.
At issue is Tehran's refusal to consider freezing uranium enrichment, a potential pathway to nuclear weapons. On Thursday, the last day of a council deadline for Iran to suspend enrichment, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Tehran had failed to do so, despite the threat of U.N. sanctions.
Senior negotiators of the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany are expected to convene in Berlin on Thursday to discuss the results of the Solana-Larijani meeting.
With council sanctions looming, Annan appealed Monday for moderation instead of confrontation.
"The best solution to the issue is talks," Annan was quoted as saying by the official Qatar News Agency, while on a stop in Doha, Qatar, after an Iran visit.
The United States and its allies are applying growing pressure for punitive action against a defiant Iran. But they agreed last week to give the Solana-Larijani talks a chance in an attempt to mollify Russia and China, which are reluctant to endorse harsh and swift U.N. punishment. Iran says the U.S. is trying to sabotage positive moves toward a compromise, reports CBS News' Dan Raviv.
Beside his failure to nudge Tehran toward an enrichment freeze, Annan's visit was marred by Iran's announcement Sunday that it would host a conference to examine what it called exaggerations about the Holocaust, during which more than 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis. Annan also repeated his displeasure over an exhibition in Tehran of cartoons mocking the Holocaust that was opened as a response to Western caricatures of Prophet Muhammad.
The U.N. chief on Sunday met Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who told him that Iran favored talks over its nuclear program but would not halt uranium enrichment before entering negotiations as demanded by the West.
Iran's unyielding stance appears to be based on the calculation that Russia and China, both veto-wielding Security Council members who have major commercial ties with Iran, will oppose sanctions.
The oil-rich nation insists the program is peaceful, intended only to produce fuel for nuclear reactors that generate electricity. On Monday, the Iranian government insisted that a hostile U.S. attitude was to blame for the impasse.
"There is a good trend over the nuclear issue," government spokesman Gholam Hossein Elham said. But he added: "Some countries and powers like the U.S. want to turn the logical trend into an illogical one."
Still, with Annan failing to secure any commitment to halt uranium enrichment from Iran's leaders, other nations shared U.S. doubt about the upcoming Solana-Larijani meeting.
"We must remain skeptical" that the talks will achieve results, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told Germany's foreign ambassadors. "If not, the road to the U.N. Security Council will be unavoidable."
In June, the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany offered Iran a package of economic and diplomatic incentives to limit its nuclear program. Iran didn't respond until Aug. 22. While Tehran's response has not been made public, government officials and diplomats have said that it did not address a freeze on uranium enrichment — the key precondition sought by the six powers.
Iran's slowness in responding to the incentives package prompted the Security Council to issue a resolution July 31 ordering it to halt uranium enrichment by the end of August.
Iran also said Monday that it had tested a new air defense system to counter missiles and aircraft during large-scale military exercises throughout the country, state-run television reported.
Footage showed at least four surface-to-air missiles being fired from mobile launching pads. The report did not say if the missile was equipped with a guidance system.
Iran's military test-fired a series of missiles during large-scale war games in the Persian Gulf in March and April, including a missile it claimed was not detectable by radar that can use multiple warheads to hit several targets simultaneously.