By Louis Charbonneau
VIENNA - Iran looked set to avoid being reported to the United Nations Security Council on Monday after reaffirming its commitment to a deal meant to reassure the world it is not trying to build a nuclear bomb.
But there were signs of mounting exasperation from Western diplomats after five days of chaotic to-and-fro in which Iran first raised fresh demands and then retreated from them.
Some said they believed Iran had created a new loophole that it could try to exploit within three weeks. One complained that bargaining with Tehran was like "negotiations with the mafia over continued criminal activity."
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. nuclear watchdog, was expected later on Monday to approve the Nov. 14 deal in which Iran told the European Union it would suspend all activities related to enriching uranium.
IAEA approval would meet Iran's key immediate objective: to avoid being hauled before the Security Council and having to face possible sanctions over its nuclear programme.
Tehran says it wants solely to generate electricity and denies U.S. accusations it wants to develop a bomb.
The past week's dispute has focused on a surprise Iranian demand to exempt some 20 centrifuges from the Nov. 14 deal in order to continue research with them, although without using nuclear material.
The demand raised suspicions among Western diplomats that Iran was playing games with the Europeans and had no intention of suspending work on enrichment, a process which creates fuel for nuclear power plants or bombs.
Under intense international pressure, Iran withdrew the demand at the weekend.
But several diplomats told Reuters there was a loophole -- that Iran had only promised not to test the centrifuges until Dec. 15, when the EU and Iran meet to discuss a long-term nuclear deal. What happens after that is left open, they said.
"It is clear that if the Iranians are allowed to continue with research activity and centrifuge testing ... this will in effect nullify the full suspension Iran had committed to as part of the ... agreement with the Europeans," said an analysis of the deal, obtained by Reuters, by a non-U.S. government.
NO TESTING, BUT FOR HOW LONG?
"We informed the IAEA officially that these centrifuges, we will not test them. It will be under IAEA surveillance," the head of Iran's IAEA delegation, Hossein Mousavian, told Reuters.
Asked how long the centrifuges would not be tested, he said: "In our coming negotiations with the Europeans we will talk about it."
Centrifuges are devices which spin at supersonic speeds to produce enriched uranium. Diplomats say Iran is still mastering the technique of assembling groups of centrifuges and getting them to work for sustained periods of time.
Next month's EU-Iran talks will focus on trade cooperation and peaceful nuclear technology that the Europeans are willing to offer Tehran if it gives up uranium enrichment for good.
Washington, diplomats say, will not block such a deal but it will not actively support it either -- a stance that some experts believe will eventually kill the agreement. A previous EU-Iran deal collapsed earlier this year.