VIENNA Iran and world powers said on Thursday they had productive talks to ease a stalemate over Iranian nuclear ambitions, agreeing on limited transparency gestures by Tehran and another meeting later this month.
Iran's pledge to give U.N. inspectors access in the coming weeks to a second uranium enrichment site that Western powers said was hidden for three years, and plans for follow-up talks, bought Tehran a reprieve from tougher sanctions in the near future.
That is as long as Iran carries out its promise of more openness without obfuscating delays common in the past, and as long as no more concealed sites of proliferation concern, or any concrete evidence of attempts to develop atomic bombs, come to light.
The talks did not yield a date for the International Atomic Energy Agency to visit the newly revealed enrichment site.
The longer it takes to get IAEA inspectors in there, the more the West will suspect efforts to "sanitize" the site of anything that might suggest it was geared to produce material for nuclear weapons, not fuel for electricity as Iran says.
Still, last week's revelation of the site gave Iran a chance to display cooperation by announcing access for the IAEA -- without addressing the overriding U.N. demand for it to curb all enrichment activity to allay mistrust in its nuclear intentions.
Iran repeated after the talks that it would not submit to limits on its sovereign right to develop nuclear energy.
But Western powers will continue to push Iran for weightier gestures of nuclear restraint and transparency soon.
These will include a freeze on expansion of enrichment capacity and unfettered IAEA access to verify that no sites oriented to nuclear weapons development lurk anywhere in the vast, security-cloaked country.
The IAEA also wants design documentation for the Qom plant and all other planned nuclear sites, something Iran has been withholding for two years in retaliation for initial sanctions.
If Iran continues to rule out such broader confidence-building moves, the United States, Britain, France and Germany are likely to pursue broader United Nations sanctions in earnest.
LACK OF GLOBAL WILL FOR SANCTIONS
The West will calculate that there is no more time to waste, fearing Iran is orchestrating "talks for talks' sake" to stockpile enriched uranium and modernize its nuclear infrastructure to approach nuclear weapons capacity.
Tougher sanctions mooted would target Iran's huge oil and gas sector; firms that insure shipments to Iran; export credits; more Iranian banks and firms run by the Revolutionary Guards; and Iran's top leaders by denying them travel visas.
But the chances of making harsher sanctions work suffer from a lack of global will to enforce them, given Russian and Chinese reluctance, and the risk they will harm ordinary Iranians, reuniting them behind a weakened Islamic leadership.
Russia and China will be loath to even consider more sanctions before the IAEA issues findings from its first visit to the nascent enrichment site dug inside a mountain near the Shi'ite holy city of Qom. An IAEA report will not come before mid-November at the earliest.
Russia's reluctance to isolate Iran reflects both its significant military trade with the Islamic Republic and its disbelief that Tehran poses a genuine nuclear threat to international peace and security.
China's opposition is rooted in a distaste for interference in the affairs of other states and its appetite for Iranian oil to help propel its vast, galloping economy. Beijing is now dependent on Iran for 12 percent of its crude imports.
Chinese state-run enterprises also export gasoline to Iran, filling a lucrative vacuum left by Western contractors who pulled out under pressure from their capitals.
Gasoline sanctions could be devastating economically but spotty in impact if China and Russia did not take part. Another weakness would be Iran's long, loosely controlled seacoast and wild mountain and desert borders where smugglers flourish.
Only a blockade or embargo tantamount to war could throttle gasoline supplies to Iran entirely. But military conflict has become an increasingly unpalatable last-ditch contingency.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says war would only slow, not end, an Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons. Even Iran's enemy Israel has backed away publicly from the idea.
Gasoline sanctions could backfire politically by harming ordinary Iranians more than the elite and risk reuniting them behind a hardline Islamic elite discredited by alleged vote fraud and violent suppression of peaceful protests.
More broadly, any tougher sanctions would allow Iran's elite to point to Western attempts to isolate Iran into capitulation.
The nuclear program has become a sacrosanct pillar of Iranian independence and civilization pride, leaving no political leeway at home for the leadership to shut it down as a string of U.N. Security Council resolutions have demanded.
(Editing by Myra MacDonald)