Tensions reached a high point this week after Tehran rejected an appeal by European Union (EU) countries to delay the re-opening of a key nuclear conversion facility. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) asked for the delay to give UN inspectors more time to install monitoring devices inside the plant.
Melissa Fleming, a spokesperson for the agency says, "We would need to bring cameras in, we would need to send our inspectors there to measure material, so this would take at least a week and we've asked them, 'Until that time, until that surveillance equipment is in place, please don't break any seals on that equipment.' "
Tehran's Supreme National Council responded by calling the delay unacceptable and announced it would resume uranium processing at its plant in Isfahan in central Iran as early as Wednesday.
But French foreign minister Philippe Douste-Blazy warned the decision could trigger a "major international crisis," and along with Britain and Germany, threatened Iran with economic sanctions unless it went back to the negotiating table.
Late Wednesday, Iranian officials revised their position and agreed to delay plans until early next week. Middle East experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington say Iran is playing a diplomatic game of cat and mouse.
CSIS senior analyst Anthony Cordesman commented, "So far the tactic has been to delay to conceal, to appear to agree, to bluff, to threaten, to reach whatever steps allows them to move forward and if they do come under pressure, rather than halting the program they conceal it or they may pause. This is much more a struggle at a covert level than it is a traditional diplomatic negotiation."
The Supreme National Council says its actions should not be seen as a challenge to the EU. Tehran officials maintain the country's nuclear program is peaceful but the United States, among others, believes Iran is seeking nuclear weapons.
However, a new U.S. intelligence review reportedly says Iran is about 10 years away from having the capability to build a nuclear bomb, up from earlier estimates of five years. Mr. Cordesman says that's only a guess based on limited information. "For example, no one doubts that if Iran could somehow get fissile material from the former Soviet Union or anywhere else it wouldn't be 10 years, it would be one or two."
Iran's chief nuclear negotiator has asked the IAEA to expedite installation of monitoring cameras inside the Isfahan nuclear plant. Iran says the plant will be used to convert uranium into gas form, which is one step short of enrichment for its use as fuel or for weapons.
EU negotiators plan to offer Tehran a package of incentives and want its nuclear activities suspended until then. The negotiations come on the same day that President-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad completed the first step of taking office. Many observers expect he will take a tougher line in Tehran's nuclear talks.