Leading article: There is no crisis until all the talking has stopped

Click to follow

The dispute between the West and Iran over its nuclear programme seems to be proceeding along an all too predictable course. The International Atomic Energy Agency voted to report Iran to the UN Security Council for suspected violations of the nuclear non-proliferation agreement. Iran's response was to announce an end to its voluntary cooperation with the IAEA and the start of uranium enrichment at its Natanz plant. It will also block snap IAEA inspections.

On the face of it, the stalemate of the past year is now over. Intensive diplomacy by the European Union troika has failed. The dispute will be referred to the Security Council. UN sanctions against Iran will then be inevitable and military action - as the US Defence Secretary emphasised this weekend - cannot be ruled out. There is a weary sense that we have been through all this before, with Iran's Western neighbour, and the outcome - as we know - was not a happy one.

This time, though, the gloom may not be quite as impenetrable as it appears. There is more care - and more hesitation - on both sides than seems at first sight. At the IAEA, the vote was not to refer Iran to the Security Council, but to report it - a preliminary step. Formal referral will depend on what the head of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, recommends in a report to the agency's next meeting in four weeks' time.

And no sooner had Iran announced that it was acting on its threat to end all cooperation with the IAEA than it opened a small window for compromise. Its foreign ministry said that Iran was prepared to talk about a Russian compromise that would entail the enrichment of uranium for Iran's nuclear power programme taking place in Russia. The proposal, it said, would have to be adapted to what it called the new situation, but Iran was no longer rejecting it out of hand. "The door for negotiations," the spokesman said, "is still open."

While a welcome development, this response is not unambiguous. It is possible that Iran's leaders are singing one song to their home audience and another to the outside world. Iran's foreign ministry, like foreign ministries the world over, appreciates the risk in burning diplomatic bridges in a way Iran's other branches of power may not. As so often in this dispute, there must be the suspicion that Iran's leadership is divided. Between the incautious new President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the clerical leadership and the foreign ministry, it is not at all clear who ultimately speaks for Iran.

Nor is it clear why Iran might be reconsidering its rejection of a uranium deal with Russia. Was Tehran shocked to see Moscow (and Beijing) aligning themselves with the Western powers at the IAEA? Or is it perhaps simple brinkmanship, a matter of continually pushing to see how far it can go? In any case, the more unity the IAEA can muster, the more weight its recommendations are likely to carry in Tehran. And the Western powers must recognise that the IAEA's unity can be maintained only if they show due circumspection and acknowledge Iran's legal rights as a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty.

Even with all the caveats, Iran's limited change of heart suggests that it is as hesitant about breaking off all diplomacy as are the Europeans - and even the Americans. The timetable is being drawn out as much as it can possibly be. The IAEA meets again on 6 March; it will decide nothing more until then. In the meantime, Iranian officials will go to Moscow to discuss the enrichment option, among other things.

In short, as Mr ElBaradei sagely put it, we are in "a critical phase but not a crisis". There is time and space for the talking to continue. And it is in everyone's interests for that to happen.