VIENNA, Austria – The European Union's foreign policy chief and Iran's senior nuclear negotiator tentatively agreed to meet Wednesday in a last-ditch attempt to bridge differences over Tehran's atomic program, U.N. and European officials said.
With the Vienna meeting seen as the last chance for Iran to avoid sanctions, U.N. Secretary- General Kofi Annan threw his weight behind a negotiated solution, saying Monday that confrontation with the Security Council "will not be in Iran's favor or that of the region."
The officials, who agreed to share confidential information about the meeting with The Associated Press only if their names weren't used, stressed that the date and venue of the talks could still change.
While word leaked last week that Iranian chief negotiator Ali Larijani agreed to meet with top EU envoy Javier Solana to discuss ways to solve the impasse, details of the talks were being officially kept secret in an apparent attempt not to jeopardize any chance of their success.
Asked to confirm the reports, Cristina Gallach, the spokeswoman for Solana, would only say that "the lines of communications are being kept open" between the two sides.
At issue is Tehran's defiance of the Security Council's Thursday deadline for it to freeze uranium enrichment, a potential pathway to atomic arms. The oil-rich nation insists the program is peaceful, intended only to produce fuel for nuclear reactors that generate electricity.
Senior negotiators of the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany are expected to convene in Berlin on Thursday to discuss the results of the Solana-Larijani meeting.
Annan appealed for moderation instead of confrontation. "The best solution to the issue is talks," he was quoted as saying by the official Qatar News Agency while on a stop in Doha, Qatar, after visiting Tehran.
The U.S. and its allies are increasing pressure for punishing a defiant Iran. But they agreed last week to give the Solana-Larijani talks a chance in an attempt to mollify Russia and China, which are reluctant to endorse harsh and swift U.N. punishment for Iran, a major trade partner.
Beside his failure to nudge Iranian leaders toward an enrichment halt, Annan's Tehran visit was marred by Iran's announcement Sunday that it will host a conference to examine what it calls exaggerations about the Holocaust, during which more than 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis.
The U.N. chief met on Sunday with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who told him that Iran favored talks on its nuclear program but would not halt uranium enrichment before entering negotiations as demanded by the West.
Iran's unyielding stance appears to be based on the calculation that Russia and China, both veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council, will oppose sanctions.
On Monday, the Iranian government insisted a hostile U.S. attitude was to blame for the crisis.
"There is a good trend over the nuclear issue," government spokesman Gholam Hossein Elham said. But he added: "Some countries and powers like the U.S. want to turn the logical trend into an illogical one."
Still, with Annan failing to secure any commitment to halt uranium enrichment from Iran's leaders, other nations shared U.S. doubt about the Solana-Larijani meeting.
"We must remain skeptical" that the talks will achieve results, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told Germany's ambassadors. "If not, the road to the U.N. Security Council will be unavoidable."
In June, the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany offered Iran a package of economic and diplomatic incentives to limit its nuclear program. Iran didn't respond until Aug. 22.
While Tehran's response has not been made public, government officials and diplomats have said it did not address a freeze on uranium enrichment — the key condition set by the six powers.
Iran's slowness in responding to the incentives package prompted the Security Council to issue a resolution July 31 ordering Tehran to halt uranium enrichment by the end of August.
Iran also said Monday that it had tested a new air defense system to counter missiles and aircraft during large-scale military exercises throughout the country, state-run television reported.
Footage showed at least four surface-to-air missiles being fired from mobile launching pads. The report did not say if the missile was equipped with a guidance system.
Iran's military test-fired a series of missiles during large-scale war games in the Persian Gulf in March and April, including a missile it claimed was not detectable by radar that can use multiple warheads to hit several targets simultaneously.