The talks come amid Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's declaration on February 25 that Tehran's nuclear program is unstoppable and -- in a show of its growing technical prowess -- Iran fired a rocket into space for the first time on the same day.
Accelerating, Not Halting
Officials from the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany are meeting in London to discuss how to increase pressure on Iran to give up sensitive nuclear work.
But the West is sure to view the rocket launch with concern, given that it shows Iran's increasing skill in rocketry, which could potentially be used to provide it with a delivery system for nuclear warheads.
The meeting follows a report from the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last week that Iran is continuing -- even accelerating -- its uranium-enrichment work in defiance of December's UN Security Council resolution demanding an end to it. Iran is suspected of seeking to develop nuclear weapons, something which Tehran continually denies.
Today's London meeting is expected to discuss imposing new sanctions on Iran, in addition to the limited sanctions that were imposed in December. The United States wants measures that will bite into the Iranian economy, but Russia and China are more reluctant to impose such severe sanctions.
Iran itself has trumpeted its rejection of the UN moves in ever more colorful terms. ISNA news agency reports that Deputy Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mohammadi on February 25 said Iran is ready "even for war" and would not respond positively to a second UN resolution against it.
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad described Iran's nuclear program as unstoppable, comparing it to a train with "no break and no reverse gear."
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice replied to the hard-line Iranian president's comments within hours. She took up the image suggested by Ahmadinejad of a machine running out of control.
"They don't need a reverse gear, they need a stop button," Rice said. "They need to stop enriching and reprocessing [uranium], and then we can sit down and talk about whatever is on Iran's mind."
Rice went on to amplify her offer of talks with the Islamic regime, striking a conciliatory note.
"We are, however, with Iran in a situation in which they are in defiance of the international community," she said. "They need to change that behavior. Then we can talk about everything. And we'll talk about it with this regime. I am prepared to meet my counterpart or an Iranian representative any time if Iran will suspend its enrichment and reprocessing activities. This should be a clear signal."
Despite the increasingly strident rhetoric from hard-liners, there appear to be other, more moderate opinions in Tehran, which might be more open to offers such as Rice's.
They come in part from the circle around Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. For instance, Khamenei adviser Ali Akbar Velayati hinted to the French daily "Liberation" on February 14 that Iran might be willing to accept a suspension of enrichment.
Velayati said: "If we continue to be in favor of a peaceful resolution of this problem, no idea should be unacceptable."
And former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani on February 23 addressed an appeal to the international community.
"We are ready to give you full assurances -- all of us, our officials, our dear leader [Ayatollah Khamenei], all of us -- we know that if we talk under the right conditions, you will become certain that Iran's nuclear program does not include anything else but what you say is Iran's right -- peaceful use [of nuclear energy]," he said.
Worrisome Rocket Launch
Amid the diplomatic sparring comes news of an event which demonstrates Iran's growing technical expertise, namely its first independent venture into space.
Officials and the Iranian media said a locally-built research rocket rose to a height of some 150 kilometers before falling back to earth by parachute.
Officials said the rocket carried material for experiments for several Iranian government ministries, including the Defense Ministry. No information was given about these experiments.
Ali Akbar Golrou, the executive deputy of Iran's aerospace research center, told the Fars news agency that the rocket was not a missile, thus playing down any military aspect to the event.
But the West is sure to view the vehicle launch with concern, given that it shows Iran's increasing skill in rocketry, which could potentially be used to provide it with a delivery system for nuclear warheads.