VIENNA, Austria (AP) _ Iran still refuses to suspend uranium enrichment before the start of talks on its nuclear program _ a key demand by the six nations locked in a diplomatic standoff with the Islamic republic, officials said Tuesday.
Tehran said over the weekend that it was considering suspending enrichment, which can produce fissile material for nuclear warheads, for up to two months. The willingness to consider such a halt was seen as an important opening.
But officials from delegations familiar with the outcome of the weekend's negotiations between Iranian and European negotiators said Tuesday that Iran had also made clear it would not halt enrichment before broader, six-power talks aimed at persuading Iran to agree to a long-term moratorium. They demanded anonymity in exchange for divulging confidential information.
Iran faces the threat of U.N. sanctions if those talks fail.
The officials spoke to The Associated Press as the International Atomic Energy Agency's 35-nation board reconvened at a session that would focus on Iran, likely on Wednesday.
The IAEA's chief U.S. delegate Gregory L. Schulte said America welcomed ``the open channel'' European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana had established, but emphasized that Iran had yet to make a formal offer on freezing enrichment.
``We would like very much to hear ... that Iran is suspending,'' Schulte told the AP. ``But in the meantime, the intention is to move forward with the (Security Council) sanctions package.''
Tehran already is in violation of an Aug. 31 U.N. Security Council deadline to freeze enrichment. The five permanent council members plus Germany made clear that negotiations with Iran that could give it economic and political rewards for halting enrichment would not take place without Tehran agreeing to a freeze before the talks started.
Iran could still have civilian nuclear power, within some limits, under the deal.
Tehran has said it would not give up its right to the full range of nuclear technology and expertise, including enrichment, which it says it needs to develop to meet future nuclear power needs.
After the meeting between Solana and chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, diplomats said they considered the proposal of even a temporary pause significant because it could de-escalate the nuclear standoff
Iran's oil minister, Kazem Vaziri Hamaneh, told reporters at an OPEC conference in Vienna on Tuesday that progress in talks between Iran and the EU had eased the crisis.
``Many points are now clear,'' Hamaneh said, adding: ``I don't see a standoff'' any longer.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did not specifically rule out accepting Tehran's terms, but predicted that U.N. sanctions would follow ``if this does not work out.''
Rice suggested, however, that Washington still wanted suspension before talks, telling reporters Monday: ``The question is, are they prepared to suspend verifiably so that negotiations can begin.''
The United States has led the drive to haul Iran before the security council to face economic or other sanctions if it does not roll back its nuclear program.
Russia and China _ both veto-holding council members _ are reluctant to move toward sanctions.
Uranium enrichment can also make fuel for civilian nuclear reactors, and IAEA inspectors have been unable to determine the intent of Iran's program, begun in secret two decades ago.
The West, and the U.S. in particular, say an enrichment pause is essential to preventing Tehran from making progress on building a weapon. Iran voluntarily suspended its uranium activities during two years of negotiations with European nations, but those talks fell apart last year without a deal.
In the meantime, there are signs that European allies are not eager to begin the sanctions discussion either, perhaps moving closer to Moscow and Beijing in seeking a way out.
Expanding on the terms of a possible Iranian compromise, a diplomat familiar with the issue said Tehran was seeking guarantees it would not be attacked by the United States during any negotiations.
``They are essentially seeking assurances that they would not be bombed while they are talking,'' the diplomat told the AP.
Another diplomat said Iran is also seeking a guarantee that its right to enrichment is recognized, despite any temporary freeze. In exchange, it would offer IAEA inspectors increased inspection rights of its nuclear facilities and guarantee that it would not leave the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty _ as it has threatened.