VIENNA After two days of rare and intensive talks in Tehran, senior U.N. nuclear officials may have felt they were finally making headway towards getting Iran to address suspicions that it is bent on developing the ability to make atom bombs.
Then, on the evening before the third and final session of last week's meetings in the Iranian capital, the visiting U.N. nuclear watchdog delegation was handed an envelope that dealt a blow to any hopes of substantive progress.
According to one Vienna-based diplomat briefed on the discussions, it contained a procedural "new work plan" at odds with the nature of the discussions until then, in which the U.N. experts had tried to focus on concrete steps required by Iran.
In the view of Western officials, the Iranian move was further proof of the kind of stalling tactics Tehran has often used during the decade-long dispute over its nuclear program.
"It is delay. It is talks about talks," a senior Western envoy said about the Iranian negotiating strategy.
The team from the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, headed by Deputy Director General Herman Nackaerts, was forced to use much of the last day of the January 29-31 meeting to push back against the Iranian initiative.
"The agency had to spend a great deal of time getting over Iranian obfuscation," said another diplomat. "It wasted a lot of time, at least a day."
Neither Iran nor the IAEA have commented on the Iranian proposal or given details about it.
But it evoked memories among Western diplomats of an ultimately doomed plan agreed between the IAEA and Tehran in 2007 to resolve "outstanding issues" that failed to allay international doubts about Iran's nuclear aspirations.
By putting forward a new such proposal, they suspect, Iran was trying once again to drag talks out while pressing ahead with nuclear work Western powers fear is aimed at acquiring the means and technologies needed to build atomic bombs.
"The Iranians kept trying to push that 'work plan' and the agency was not going to go there. They had some very frank engagement," the senior envoy said.
Iran's mission to the IAEA was not reachable for comment. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi has described the meeting with the IAEA as "very good," without elaborating.
A second round of talks has been slated for later this month but Western diplomats hold out little hope that the February 21-22 meeting in Tehran will fare much better than the previous round.
One diplomat said the January negotiations ended with a draft "discussion paper" listing the main points the IAEA wants Iran to answer, especially allegations about possible military dimensions to its uranium enrichment program.
The talks coincide with soaring tension in the long-running row, with the United States and European Union adopting sanctions targeting Iran's oil exports and the Islamic Republic threatening retaliation by closing the main Gulf oil shipping lane.
IRAN UNDER PRESSURE
The outcome of the IAEA's meetings in Tehran will be scrutinized in Washington, European capitals and Israel for signs of whether Iran's leadership may finally be prepared to give ground after a decade of pursuing shadowy nuclear development goals, or whether it remains as defiant as ever.
Many fear a downward spiral towards military conflict and rocketing oil prices if diplomacy and sanctions fail to change the Islamic state's nuclear course.
The Vienna-based IAEA, tasked with preventing the spread of nuclear arms in the world, is pressing Iran to be transparent.
It wants Iran to explain intelligence findings, detailed in an IAEA report in November, about research and development work pointing to nuclear weapons aims, and grant access to sites, documents and people relevant for its investigation.
Iran has indicated readiness for the first time to answer the agency's questions but also repeatedly dismissed the allegations as baseless and forged.
It says its drive to stockpile enriched uranium is entirely peaceful and aimed at generating electricity using a future network of nuclear power plants.
The deadlock over the IAEA's suspicion that Iran is looking into "weaponizing" its nuclear activity dates back over three years.
Nackaerts and his team specifically asked last week for access to the Parchin military site near Tehran, without receiving a clear answer from the Iranian side, diplomats said.
The secretive U.N. agency would not comment on the visit beyond a formal statement in which Director General Yukiya Amano said: "The agency is committed to intensifying dialogue. It remains essential to make progress on substantive issues."
The IAEA said it explained to Iran its "concerns and identified its priorities, which focus on the clarification of possible military dimensions."
"The IAEA also discussed with Iran the topics and initial steps to be taken, as well as associated modalities," it said.
Western diplomats said the statement made clear that there had been little progress on substance, but also raised pressure on Iran to deliver tangible results in the next meeting.
Tehran is in the "game of gaining time," one of them said.
But at least it would be clear who was to blame if the talks failed, he added: "It is going to be Iran's responsibility."
The IAEA may also hope that the Iranian side next time will send senior officials such as Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation, to the talks.
Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, was the main counterpart in the January meeting. While he is a senior nuclear official, the U.N. agency frequently sees him in Vienna.
"There was nothing achieved on this visit and in fact the agency could not get Iran to engage on possible military dimensions questions at all," the senior Western envoy said.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)