Iran has handed ammunition to American and Israeli hawks by delaying its response to a Western offer of technological and political incentives intended to curb Iranian nuclear ambitions. At the highest-level meeting involving US and Iranian officials in almost 30 years held in Geneva on Saturday, Iran dashed expectations of a compromise that would avert the imposition of further sanctions and possible military confrontation.
Instead of giving a clear answer to the proposals from the big powers, the Iranian delegation head, Saeed Jalili, skirted round the issue continuously, according to diplomats at the talks. Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief who led the delegation of senior officials from Britain, the US, France, Germany, Russia and China, unsuccessfully pressed Mr Jalili for a response over lunch.
The meeting ended with Iran being given a two-week deadline to respond to "freeze for freeze" proposals which promise that moves towards further UN sanctions – which could cover plants and spare parts for the Iranian oil and gas sectors – would be halted if Tehran agrees to suspend sensitive nuclear activities.
However, Iran repeated that it would not yield to UN demands to suspend uranium enrichment. The Western governments fear the process could be used to produce fuel for a nuclear bomb even though Iran says its intentions are peaceful.
"It's a big opportunity missed," said one diplomat, who predicted that the EU would bring in financial sanctions against Tehran in the coming days, while the big powers keep alive the threat of further UN moves.
Reflecting the increased Western frustration at the stalemate, Gordon Brown will tell the Israeli Knesset today that Iran has "a clear choice to make."
The US decided to despatch its third-ranking State Department official, William Burns, to Geneva in a policy shift after Iran raised expectations that it would respond to the package delivered by Mr Solana in Tehran last month.
Mr Jalili's failure to engage could be an indication that the multi-headed Iranian leadership remains divided on strategy. If so, their divisions reflect those in the Bush administration, where the debate over the use of force as opposed to a diplomatic solution for Iran is now certain to intensify.