VIENNA — The mood is grim behind the scenes at the headquarters of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, with diplomats expressing dismay at Iran's response to a Western proposal to defuse the standoff over its nuclear program.
Publicly at least, world powers insist the deal is not dead, saying that Tehran may still swing around and accept an offer meant to hamper any ability to make a nuclear warhead while providing it with fuel for its research reactor.
The International Atomic Energy Agency is describing Iran's reply Thursday to the plan as an "initial response." The U.S. State Department says it is still awaiting a formal response from Iran.
Iran's official IRNA news agency on Friday cited an unidentified official as saying that Iran's response Thursday was only its view on the deal — and not a definitive answer — as it prepares for a new round of talks.
Diplomats familiar with the issue — some from countries directly involved in drawing up the plan — say Tehran's reaction is so far off the mark that they are skeptical the initiative can be salvaged.
If the deal dies, it could kill off even more significant outreach toward Iran.
An Oct. 1 meeting between Iran and five world powers, including the U.S., was heralded as a tangible reflection of the new U.S. policy of talking with America's enemies. Senior U.S. and Iranian negotiators met one on one, and follow-up negotiations were tentatively agreed on — but only if the Islamic Republic signs on to the enrichment plan.
Now, instead of planning for new negotiations, talk has turned to a fourth set of U.N. Security Council sanctions to punish Tehran's nuclear defiance, with British officials saying Friday that the council may consider additional penalties early next year.
Details of Iran's response to the draft deal drawn up by IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei have not been made public. Diplomats familiar with its details say Thursday's Iranian counteroffers are meant to ensure that it gets to keep most of its enriched uranium.