The Iranian government is hosting a nuclear conference Saturday and Sunday in Tehran, in counterpoint to the Washington summit this week to which it was not invited. The meeting comes as the U.S. pushes for a fourth set of sanctions over Tehran's disputed nuclear program, a drive that appears to be gaining momentum.
Looking ahead to the Tehran meeting, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insisted that his country is doing its best to work with world powers.
In an interview on state television, Mr. Ahmadinejad said "we are actually after cooperation and negotiation. We still are.” He added that Iran was willing to deal with a formula that protects Iran's rights, includes its independence, dignity and honor - and excludes the nuclear issue.
It's that kind of mixed message that frustrates so many. Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful, civilian purposes. But by refusing to comply with U.N. nuclear agency requests, it deepens suspicions that it seeks nuclear weapons.
Ezzedine Choukri Fishere, political science professor at the American University in Cairo, says the Iranian program is worrying for almost everyone, both in the region and in the international community.
“The fact that Iran insists on pursuing these features and refusing to reassure the international community and its neighbors,” Fishere said, “means that those who are worried about it enough to take action, will eventually take action."
The conference in Iran appears aimed at showing Tehran still has supporters. India is one nuclear power sending a representative, though at a far lower official level than at the Washington summit.
There are signs others are losing patience. China, which has been holding out against further U.N. sanctions, has agreed to be involved at least in the drafting of new measures. The veto-wielding nation depends on Iran for some ten percent of its oil, although in recent months has been looking at other Persian Gulf nations as possible suppliers.
Further complicating efforts of those wishing to support Iran are comments by authorities that leave many simply baffled.
Earlier in the week, a senior official at Iran's atomic energy agency declared the country would become a member of the "nuclear club" within a month. The term is commonly used to describe nations with nuclear weapons.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was quick to dismiss the idea, saying he didn't believe it.
“I think most estimates that I've seen haven't changed since the last time we talked about it, which is, at least a year, maybe more," Gates said.
Political science professor Fishere argued both sides need to go beyond reacting to statements like that about the nuclear club, which he says could be aimed at a domestic audience or simply a matter of mistranslation. He urged the United States and Iran to sit down to direct dialogue about all the issues at stake. But he argues that the offer by President Barack Obama to reach out to Iran didn't go far enough.
"What the Obama administration did was incurring the political cost of calling for a dialogue with Iran, but without actually the benefit of engaging in that dialogue,” Fishere said.
He added that he hopes the administration will be bold enough to finally engage in face-to-face dialogue and put on the table the serious issues and the real issues it is worried about.
Fishere said the U.N. offer last year to enrich Iranian uranium abroad -an offer rejected by Iran - was a good start, arguing that broadening that dialogue will help bring Iran back from what he calls the "abyss" that it appears to be approaching.