Pessimism plagued the first talks for more than a year between Iran and seven world powers on the West's concern that Tehran is developing nuclear weapons.
The two-day meeting in Geneva began in unexpected calm but officials said the most they might achieve would be agreement on more far-reaching negotiations next year.
Even this would be significant. Israel has previously hinted that some kind of military action could be taken by the end of this year unless Tehran agreed to limit its nuclear activities.
Two events overshadowed yesterday's talks between senior Iranian officials and delegations from Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States, as well as the EU.
First, the chief Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili said the atmosphere had been "burdened" by the assassination by bombing last week of a prominent Iranian nuclear scientist. The Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has accused the United States of carrying out the attack – something Washington has denied. The EU high representative for foreign affairs, Baroness Ashton, "thoroughly condemned" the assassination yesterday.
The talks have also been affected by the – apparently deliberately timed – announcement by Iran on Sunday that it had successfully mined its own uranium and delivered it to a processing plant. This meant, it said, that it was now self-sufficient in all stages of the enrichment process and immune to sanctions. Western officials are doubtful about the accuracy of this claim.
Nonetheless, early indications suggested both sides were ready to listen to one another in Geneva. The Iranian delegation reacted calmly when told that a commitment was wanted that Tehran would stop the enrichment of uranium (a process which can both fuel reactors and provide the explosive core of nuclear weapons). Hitherto Iran has insisted that a ban on enrichment was non-negotiable.
In Athens, the Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki made a convoluted declaration that was read by western governments as, at least, not entirely obstructive. He said that the "countries that are participating today in the talks [in Geneva] on the nuclear program have the room to follow a policy to resolve the issue."
"We hope that the talks and the negotiations that started today continue in a constructive way and reach a positive horizon," he said.
President Ahmadinejad was more direct. "Iran has not and will not allow anybody in the talks to withdraw one iota of the rights of the Iranian nation," he said in Tehran.
European officials said the powers wanted Iran to at least answer questions on its nuclear programme and agree to more substantial talks early next year. "The choices are clear for Iran: it can face growing isolation or co-operate," one official told Reuters.
Sanctions on Iran have been increased in recent months. Governments are confident they are hurting the Iranian economy but both the US and Israel say that all options, including military action, remain on the table.
Iran's neighbours are also worried. According to the WikiLeaks revelations of US diplomatic messages, Saudi Arabia has repeatedly urged the United States to bomb Iranian nuclear plants.
Michael Adler, of the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, said the conventional wisdom that negotiations were pointless was shifting. "US and Iranian officials seem in recent comments to be outlining a willingness, or at least tentative steps, toward compromise over the stickiest issue of the nuclear dispute," he wrote.Reuse content