An agreement to hold more talks in the dispute over Iran's nuclear program was probably the best result major powers could have hoped for in their first meeting with the Islamic Republic in more than a year.
But while the outcome of two days of discussions in Geneva — a plan to meet again early next year in Turkey — may allow the West to nurture hopes of possible progress toward resolving the row, there was no sign of any rapprochement in substance.
Iran's nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili made clear his country would not back down over its uranium enrichment work, activity which the West suspects is aimed at developing bombs but Tehran says is for peaceful electricity generation.
The six big powers involved in efforts to find a diplomatic solution — the United States, Russia, France, Germany, Britain, and China — want Iran to curb such activity to reassure the world about its intentions. But analysts say Iran's hardline leaders, who use the nuclear program to rally nationalist support and distract from domestic problems, are unlikely ever to agree to this demand.
"This government has obviously linked the development of the nuclear programme so closely to its own legitimacy that it would be difficult for them to backtrack on it," said Gala Riani of the IHS Global Insight consultancy.
Western officials say tougher international sanctions imposed on Iran since June are hurting the oil-dependent economy, and they hope this will persuade Tehran to enter serious negotiations about its nuclear programme.
Iran dismisses the impact of these penalties, saying trade and other measures imposed since the 1979 Islamic revolution toppled the U.S.-backed shah have made the country stronger.
Such rhetoric is to be expected from Tehran, but experts and diplomats are far from confident that external pressure alone will be enough to force Tehran to climb down, with some suggesting the big powers may also have to compromise.
Echoing the views of others, analyst Nicole Stracke of the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center said the West could agree to continued Iranian uranium enrichment, which can have both civilian and military purposes.
Under this scenario, Iran would need to let the U.N. nuclear watchdog carry out more intrusive, wider-ranging inspections to make sure it is not secretly developing nuclear weapons.
"It would be painful but it could be acceptable for the U.S.," Stracke said about the possibility of the powers backing down on their demand that Iran suspends all enrichment-related activities, provided that Tehran accepts tougher inspections.
"It puts the ball in the Iranian corner."
In Geneva, a U.S. official said enrichment suspension remains the powers' position, mandated by U.N. resolutions.
A senior Western diplomat, from a country which is not involved in the negotiations with Iran, said he did not believe the Obama administration could sign up to any deal relaxing this demand ahead of the 2012 presidential elections.
"I just don't think the politics will work," the Vienna-based diplomat said, adding the diplomatic track on Iran appeared not to be going anywhere. "The military track starts to come back into evidence, unfortunately."
Israel and the United States have not ruled out military action if diplomacy fails to halt sensitive Iranian nuclear work. But at the same time U.S. military chiefs have made clear they view it as a last resort, fearing it could ignite wider conflict in the Middle East.
Proliferation expert Shannon Kile, of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said he believed the world powers and Iran needed "to break out of a zero-sum game . . . to a situation where both sides can come away claiming a win".
But prospects for this look dim for now, as the demand that Iran suspend enrichment is enshrined in repeated U.N. Security Council resolutions and Tehran has repeatedly refused more far-reaching U.N. inspections of its atomic work.
"Ultimately it depends on Iran's calculations and if they want a bomb or not," said another Western diplomat in Vienna. "The current situation in fact suits them if they want a bomb."
Sadegh Kharazi, a former Iranian diplomat, urged both sides to calm their rhetoric to give talks a chance.
"Success is possible, if space is provided to develop a deal suitable to both sides, while providing security guarantees and recognising Iran's legitimate role and interests in its own region," he wrote this week in the Financial Times.
"But the threat of fresh sanctions, unveiled with the shaking of a fist, will damage the slender chances for peace."
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