Iran yesterday rejected internationally backed incentives for Tehran to curb its nuclear programme in a development which stopped well short of a breakdown but suggested that negotiations which lie ahead could be protracted and tortuous.
The six world powers at the Baghdad talks rejected Tehran's counter-proposal for an immediate easing of increasingly stringent sanctions – partly in return for an Iranian pledge to widen the access of UN inspectors to its nuclear and military sites.
The US, France, Britain, China, Russia and Germany had proposed that Tehran halt its enrichment of some uranium to a level of 20 percent in a deal under which Iran would also receive some benefits, including medical isotopes, spare parts needed for its ageing civil airliners and some international co-operation on nuclear safety.
The proposal was aimed at an eventual deal with Tehran which would avert the threat of a Middle East war. Israel, which has threatened a unilateral military strike in the absence of what it would regard as a satisfactory agreement, has been publicly sceptical about the negotiations. Though less bellicose in its rhetoric, Washington has refused to rule out an eventual military option.
Reuters quoted an Iranian delegate as accusing the big powers of creating a "difficult" atmosphere. But as the second day of talks continued into the evening, the official Iranian news agency IRNA said later that "in comparison with the morning, the atmosphere is improving".
Iranian media reported that the counter-proposal tabled by Iran's chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, envisaged a range of nuclear and non-nuclear cooperation, and explicit recognition by the powers of the Islamic republic's right to enrich uranium.
But some Western diplomats said that Mr Jalili's plan lacked concrete details, with one telling Reuters: "They are pushing back on enrichment and asking us to engage their plan. It is pretty tough going, but I don't think anyone ever expected anything else."
The crucial gap between the two sides appeared to be Iran's insistence on rapid easing of sanctions in return for any significant concessions on enrichment, and that of the six powers that their demands on enrichment must be met first. Western governments are concerned that 20 per cent enrichment could be upgraded with relative ease and speed to the 90 per cent required for producing nuclear weapons.
An unnamed senior US official predicted that a further round of negotiations planned for Moscow on 18 and 19 June would proceed more speedily, and added: "We still think we have some time for diplomacy, but it's not indefinite."