By Rupert Cornwell in Washington
A claim by Iran that it has suspended uranium enrichment appears to open a three-month window for a compromise over what it insists is its peaceful atomic energy programme. But the US remains convinced that Tehran remains determined to develop nuclear weapons.
The suspension was announced yesterday by Iranian state radio, as what it called a "confidence-building" move, before negotiations resume on a long-term deal between Iran and the European Union.
"I think pretty much everything has been stopped," Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said. IAEA inspectors will verify the shut-down so that it can be formally ratified by an IAEA board meeting in Vienna on Thursday.
What happens thereafter largely depends on the EU and the as yet unspecified economic and political co-operation deal it has promised Tehran, which is also expected to offer EU help with civil nuclear technology.
Kamal Kharrazi, the Foreign Minister, said: "After three months we will evaluate," stressing that the goal was an agreement with the EU "that convinces them we are not planning a bomb, but that will permit Iran to develop nuclear power for peaceful purposes". Hard-liners have accused the government of sacrificing the country's interests. Washington, however, is convinced that the entire exercise is being used by Iran as a smokescreen. Only reluctantly has the US dropped its demand for Iran to be brought before the UN Security Council, which could impose sanctions.
At theAsia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) summit in Chile, President George Bush left no doubt that preventing nuclear proliferation was his top foreign policy for the second term, taking direct aim at North Korea and Iran. US suspicions have been given extra edge by recent events - ranging from claims that the Iranian regime was operating a secret enrichment facility in Tehran, to the admission that it had already produced hexafluoride gas used in the enrichment process.
Mr Kharrazi has flatly denied that Iran had bought weapons-grade uranium abroad - a claim advanced by an opposition exile group - or that it was developing a missile to carry a nuclear warhead, as alleged last week by General Colin Powell, the outgoing Secretary of State.
The US information appears to be based on a single uncorroborated source, but General Powell is not backing down. "I stick by it," he said yesterday.
The EU deal was reached after talks in Paris between officials from Britain, France, Germany and Iran.
Tehran insists it is entitled to pursue peaceful atomic energy under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which it is a signatory.