BRUSSELS -- Senior diplomats from the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany are meeting in Frankfurt to discuss their options if Iran continues enriching uranium without addressing international concerns that it may be building nuclear weapons.
The meeting of officials from the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany (known as P5+1) will be the international community's first chance to respond to a reported new Iranian offer to resume talks over its nuclear program. A new International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran will also be on the table.
Announcing Tehran's new willingness for talks on September 1, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Said Jalili, gave no further details.
Later the same day, U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said the United States would take any new Iranian proposal "seriously," but said Washington has received no such offer so far.
"We haven't seen any new proposal and we haven't received any answer to our proposals the issues outlined in the [P5+1] declaration of April and our proposal to engage with them and talk about these issues, the nuclear issues," Kelly said.
Nevertheless, reports suggest there is some optimism among Western officials that Iran's latest offer of talks could present the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama with another opportunity to try to defuse the issue before moving ahead with another round of sanctions. Obama has indicated that the United States is now willing to contemplate the existence of a limited civilian nuclear program in Iran.
However, past Iranian offers of talks have failed to address the key Western demand that Iran provide airtight guarantees its nuclear program has no military applications and submit to a stringent international monitoring regime.
A confidential IAEA report on Iran, circulated on August 28 in the UN Security Council, is reported to say that Iran has allowed international monitors increased access to some of its nuclear facilities in recent weeks.
But the report also states that Tehran continues to refuse to talk to the IAEA about a possible "military dimension" of its nuclear program, which now includes 4,600 enrichment centrifuges. However, the six-page IAEA document lists no direct evidence that Iran is preparing to assemble nuclear warheads.
Weighing Support For Sanctions
Three rounds of economic sanctions have been imposed on Iran by the UN Security Council since 2006, but without tangible effect. This time, Western countries are threatening to substantially ratchet up the measures by targeting the country's financial interests abroad and blocking Iran's economically crucial imports of refined gasoline.
However, Russia and China -- both veto-wielding members of the Security Council -- are thought to remain skeptical, offering Iran a potential lifeline.
Tehran has been rattled in recent months by the hardening stance of Germany and France. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on August 27 she supports new sanctions if Iran should fail to comply with Western demands for direct and comprehensive talks.
"If there is no positive answer [from Iran] by September, we will have to consider further measures, such as sanctions in the energy and financial market sectors," Merkel said. "We will not only have to think about [sanctions], but discuss within the international community how to enforce them."
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has also spoken out in favor of new sanctions. Earlier this summer he was reported to have told a gathering of French ambassadors in Paris that Tehran's denials that it has a military nuclear program are no more credible than the regime's insistence that the June 12 presidential elections were free and fair.
The bloody crackdown on protesters that followed the elections has done a lot to turn public opinion in Western Europe against Iran. EU countries now operate a de facto visa ban on holders of Iranian service passports. Iran has retaliated by denying visas for Western journalists. Tehran has accused Berlin and Paris of falling under the sway of Israel, its archenemy.
Israel remains the biggest unknown in the international community's attempts to contain Iran. Israel has repeatedly warned it is prepared to carry out unilateral "preventive" aerial strikes on Iranian nuclear sites should it decide that the international community has failed to prevent Iran from acquiring a military nuclear capability.
This threat will weigh heavily on the minds of international diplomats now heading into four weeks of furious activity -- first two weeks of IAEA meetings in Vienna, then the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh, and then the UN General Assembly later this month in New York.