in last-ditch negotiations in Washington last night to defuse
the crisis over Iran's suspected nuclear weapons programme.
Ahead of a crucial meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna next month, the EU troika of Britain, France and Germany has drawn up a package of sweeteners in the hope of persuading Tehran to abandon its advanced uranium enrichment programme. The Guardian
Ian Traynor in Zagreb
Senior US and European officials were locked in last-ditch negotiations in Washington last night to defuse the crisis over Iran's suspected nuclear weapons programme.
Ahead of a crucial meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna next month, the EU troika of Britain, France and Germany has drawn up a package of sweeteners in the hope of persuading Tehran to abandon its advanced uranium enrichment programme.
The Europeans, at loggerheads with Washington over how to respond to the perceived Iranian challenge, are hoping to gain US backing for the high-risk diplomatic overture.
But the US, keener to punish the Iranians than negotiate with them, is certain to drive a hard bargain for supporting the move and is insisting the Europeans drop opposition to reporting Iran to the UN security council should they fail to reach a deal with Tehran.
"The Americans need iron-clad guarantees," said a senior diplomat.
David Albright, a Washington nuclear analyst, said the US-European aim was no longer to get Iran to freeze its uranium enrichment programmes, but to abandon them altogether. "The US has to buy into this," he said.
In return for US support, the Europeans appeared to have agreed to sanctions if their plan fails.
There is a mounting sense of urgency ahead of the IAEA board meeting in Vienna on November 25.
A senior international official involved in the policy-making debate said the Iranian nuclear genie was out of the bottle and could not be put back in. Iran could only now be persuaded to forfeit some of the nuclear facilities it possesses in return for European trade and technology.
"It's too late now. The Iranians have their enrichment capability and the know-how."
Another diplomat said the stakes riding on an EU-Iran deal tacitly underwritten by Washington were high since it is expected the Iranian issue could become a US foreign policy priority as soon as the White House race is settled. "The only alternative is to take it off them [Iran"> by force."
The talks in Washington are taking place in the framework of the G8 group of industrialised nations, reflecting a US move to try to impose sanctions on Iran by a body that includes the Europeans as well as Japan, Canada and Russia because Washington fears it would be unable to secure support for sanctions in the UN security council.
Earlier this year, sources said, Washington circulated a paper outlining its plans for sanctions on Iran, arguing that they should be "non-oil-based".
The Europeans want to offer Iran a trade agreement, and supply nuclear fuel for civilian reactors and other technology in return for agreement to forgo domestic uranium enrichment.
The US is sceptical that any deal will stick. The EU troika reached a similar pact with Iran a year ago, but that has been honoured only in the breach.
The difference this time, say the sources, is that the US could support the package, which would also have G8 backing. If Washington buys into the proposals, there will be strong pressure on Russia to join - important because it has just completed building a nuclear power station in Iran and is to supply the nuclear fuel.
But the US side of the negotiations is being led by John Bolton of the state department, an avowed hardliner and trenchant critic of the IAEA. Diplomats fear he could set such stiff conditions that any deal would be doomed.