Iranâ€™s foreign ministry on Sunday dismissed talk of immediate suspension of uranium enrichment ahead of this weekâ€™s UN Security Council deadline despite a recent flurry of Iranian diplomacy that had raised hopes of a compromise.
Intensifying US pressure on Iran, particularly over Tehranâ€™s alleged support for Shia militias in Iraq, has led Tehranâ€™s political elite to call on the leadership to exercise caution on the nuclear issue, fearing it would be used by Washington as a justification for military action.
A diplomatic initiative by Tehran, which took senior envoys of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iranâ€™s supreme leader, to Russia, Europe and Saudi Arabia this month, sent a conciliatory message. This included a willingness to consider some form of suspension of the most sensitive part of the nuclear programme. â€œThere is no idea that cannot from the outset be considered,â€ Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to Mr Khamenei, told Franceâ€™s LibÃ©ration newspaper, last week.
But Mohammad-Ali Hosseini, spokesman for Iranâ€™s foreign ministry, on Sunday said that there was â€œcurrently…no logical and legal justification for suspension.â€
The International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog, will report on Wednesday on Iranian compliance with a December UN Security Council resolution. That decision imposed sanctions on Iranâ€™s trade in sensitive nuclear technology and material to force it to stop uranium enrichment, a process that can produce fuel for nuclear reactors or atomic weapons.
Analysts in Tehran say that while discussion of â€œsuspensionâ€ is no longer taboo, the proposals it is considering fall short of the full, unconditional halt that the UN is demanding.
Iran has suggested, for example, that it could temporarily stop nuclear experiments and enter into negotiations with world powers â€“ but only if it had guarantees that it could resume when the talks ended. The proposal has already been rejected by European governments.
Another idea more recently floated â€“ Iranians say by Swiss diplomats â€“ is to suspend the introduction of feedstock into the centrifuges, the rotating device used for enriching uranium, but to continue spinning them. Western diplomats say this option is unacceptable as well, allowing Iran to master nuclear technology.
The nuclear crisis has provoked a heated debate in Tehran, with critics of radical President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad arguing that his influence has turned the world more firmly against Iranâ€™s nuclear programme.
Reformists, who led the previous government, and so-called â€œconservative pragmatistsâ€ associated with Hashemi Rafsanjani, the powerful former president, share the regimeâ€™s goal of pursuing a nuclear programme (although everyone denies atomic weapons ambitions). But they say there are times when Iran needs to step back and build more confidence with the international community.
The dilemma facing Ayatollah Khamenei, however, is that suspension was tried under the former government â€“ in 2004 and 2005 â€“ yet failed to convince the west that Iran should maintain a nuclear programme.
Officials in Tehran also argue that they have already compromised, with their demands now limited to maintaining a small-scale enrichment programme, rather than the industrial production of fuel.
Nasser Hadian, a professor of politics at Tehran University, said full suspension might well become a serious option for Iran â€“ but not before enrichment research reaches a more advanced technical level. â€œThen Iran can announce victory â€“ and it can suspend,â€ he said.