VIENNA, Austria — Nuclear diplomacy can be as delicate a business as trying to defuse a bomb. Press too hard, and a regime suspected of trying to build atomic weaponry may harden its resolve and move its operations deeper underground. Back off too far, and a suspect nation feels it has a free hand.
Unwilling to use their weapon of last resort against Iran — reporting it to the U.N. Security Council, which could slap Tehran with crippling economic and political sanctions — diplomats held out hope Wednesday of negotiating an end to the standoff.
But with the Islamic republic already having spurned a European offer of economic and political incentives it won’t be easy, despite an offer by new hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to return to the bargaining table.
“They have to think, they have to return to negotiating — the temperature has to be lowered,” European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana told the Spanish newspaper El Pais.
Iran raised the stakes Wednesday by breaking U.N. seals on its uranium conversion plant at Isfahan, resuming full operations at the facility despite U.S. and European calls to maintain a suspension.
The International Atomic Energy Agency’s 35-nation board of governors postponed Wednesday’s tentative session of an emergency meeting on the Iran crisis so diplomats could confer on the best way to deal with Tehran.
“They need more time,” IAEA spokesman Peter Rickwood said. Delegates continued private talks, and a resolution on the matter was expected to be taken up at a board meeting Thursday.
Reporting Iran to the Security Council might seem like the easiest and most effective measure. But getting consensus from the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency’s board, which includes nations like Brazil and Argentina that don’t want to see their own nuclear programs subject to restrictions, would be difficult if not impossible.
Among the more influential IAEA board members is Russia, which has a $800 million contract to build a reactor in the southern Iranian port city of Bushehr. Russia also is a permanent member of the Security Council, and — along with China — almost certainly would veto any move to sanction Iran.
“I don’t think that it’s something which is going to happen in the near future,” Algeria’s U.N. ambassador, Abdallah Baali, said when asked about a possible referral to the Security Council.
“It simply won’t fly,” said a Security Council diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because he had no authorization from his government. “If you have one or two veto-power countries say `no,’ how can you expect anything to happen?”
The best that could be expected from the Security Council would be a resolution using strong language, without threatening or imposing sanctions, the diplomat said.
With little real risk of sanctions, Tehran may be gambling that it hold onto its nuclear program — which Iran says is only aimed at producing electricity — as long as it continues going through the motions of engaging in dialogue.
Still, envoys remained hopeful that Iran would reconsider the EU offer presented by Britain, France and Germany.
“We think it is still possible to negotiate. We are still reaching out our hand,” said French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy.
The German government “hopes Iran will still take the sensible path and look seriously and constructively at the offer from the EU3 and return to the so-called ‘status quo ante,'” said Bela Anda, a spokesman for Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
“Negotiations, in the view of the government, are the only constructive way to a solution of this question,” Anda said. “In this way, the international community can feel confident in Iran’s statements that its nuclear program serves only peaceful intentions.”
Ahmadinejad’s indication of a willingness to continue negotiations with the Europeans threw a twist into efforts to end the standoff. So did his appointment of Ali Larijani, one of the most hard-line elements in the Islamic government, to head the negotiations.
President Bush greeted the offer as a positive sign, though he cautioned that if Iran does not cooperate, U.N. sanctions are “a potential consequence.”
The choice, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said, “is Iran’s to make.”
“There is a lot of rhetoric — the arrival of a new president has contributed as well,” Solana said. “National pride is being appealed to and it is very difficult to make the first decision giving way on the nuclear issue. We have to be firm … and make Iran see that it has taken the wrong decision.”
Associated Press Writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report. William J. Kole is Vienna bureau chief for The Associated Press.