After Iran agreed to nuclear concessions on Oct. 1, President Obama said it was a "constructive beginning." But now, U.S. officials and Western diplomats say, Tehran is backtracking. With a year-end deadline approaching to show progress on nuclear talks, the U.S. and its European allies are likelier to call for more sanctions. Tehran's reversal began, NEWSWEEK has learned, at an Oct. 28 discussion between Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, and Javier Solana, the top Western negotiator, says a European diplomat who was briefed on the internal talks but would speak only on condition of anonymity. Jalili insisted the U.S. and Western powers negotiate from a vague, four-and-a-half-page proposal Tehran submitted Sept. 9 that didn't raise the topic of Iran's nuclear program at all (it only generally addressed "security and economic" issues). At the time, the Obama administration called the proposal unacceptable. The diplomat describes it as "a lot of blah-blah," adding, "They went back on all the clarity that we got."
A day after this meeting—last Thursday—negotiations were further undercut when Iran's delegate to the International Atomic Energy Agency delivered an oral proposal dialing back on Tehran's Oct. 1 commitment to ship Iranian uranium to Russia for processing, says the European diplomat, whose account was confirmed by a senior Obama administration official and another Western official who didn't want to be named for similar reasons. At the Geneva talks, Iran agreed to send most of it slow-enriched uranium abroad so the nuclear fuel could be processed for civilian use. But the IAEA delegate, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said Iran now wants to hold on to its uranium until it gets equivalent amounts from "since the rationale behind the proposal was to deprive Iran of its uranium long enough to delay building of a bomb.
This game of one step forward, two steps back is likely a result of Tehran's continuing power struggle, the officials say. It's also a standard Tehran ploy. "You move them, and then when they go back home, something happens there and they go back to a standstill," says the European diplomat. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other U.S. officials say they want to give the Iranians time to resolve internal disputes. Still, says the senior administration official, "it would seem they're trying to turn back the clock."