VIENNA, Austria – A senior U.S. envoy on Monday welcomed progress at talks meant to defuse a standoff over Iran's nuclear defiance, but said the U.N. Security Council still intends to "move forward" toward sanctions if Tehran refuses to freeze uranium enrichment.
Gregory L. Schulte, the chief delegate to the International Atomic Energy Agency, spoke after revelations that Iran is ready to consider complying -- at least temporarily -- with a U.N. Security Council demand that it freeze uranium enrichment.
"It's encouraging that progress was made," he told reporters before the IAEA's 35-nation board session that will focus on Iran later in the week. "But what we need ... is suspension. We will be looking to move forward to the Security Council with the sanctions regime unless Iran suspends."
The board was responsible for moving Iran's nuclear file to the U.N. Security Council early this year, and the United States and its allies have regularly used its sessions to take Tehran to task for what they say are secret attempts to build a nuclear weapon.
The board will hear a report from IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei that essentially says Iran has stalemated a more than three-year investigation of its suspicious activities by the U.N. nuclear watchdog. ElBaradei may also warn that economic sanctions -- one possible lever being considered by the Security Council to enforce a demand Tehran freeze enrichment -- could lead Iran to prohibit further inspections by his experts.
But Iran's suggestion that it is ready to consider complying -- at least temporarily -- with a U.N. Security Council demand that it freeze enrichment is likely to take some pressure off the Islamic republic when the board takes up its case later in the week.
Before Monday's opening session, a diplomat from a board member country said the European Union -- whose foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, was instrumental in coaxing Iran to compromise -- has prepared a "moderate" statement on Iran and its nuclear defiance.
The diplomat asked for anonymity in exchange for sharing confidential information. He also said the six Security Council nations and Germany were considering a joint statement.
But that could be difficult, considering that Russia, China and most recently France appear to be opposed to a push by the United States and Britain for a quick move to U.N. sanctions.
Another diplomat said the tone of any six-nation statement would be determined by what Solana tells those six countries later in the day in a conference call on progress made at his weekend Vienna talks with chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani.
Surprise news that Iran was considering stopping enrichment activities for up to two months was revealed to The Associated Press shortly after those talks by diplomats familiar with the discussions.
One of them said Larijani floated the possibility of Iran stopping its enrichment activities "voluntarily, for one or two months, if presented ... in such a way that it does it without pressure."
The diplomats did not say when such a contemplated move was planned.
Still, such a concession would be a major departure by Iran, which insists it wants to develop an enrichment program to generate power, and not to make nuclear weapons, as critics assert.
Because it would defuse a confrontation that neither side wants, it would also be welcomed the majority of the five U.N. permanent members of the Security Council who oppose a quick move to sanctions. And for the sake of unity, it would likely be accepted grudgingly by the U.S. and Britain, which have been pushing for quick U.N. punishment.
With France expressing recent reservations, Washington and London now appear to be the only permanent council members espousing fast action toward punishing Iran. For the sake of unity, though, even they would likely accept a compromise that falls short of original demands that Tehran freeze enrichment before starting talks on its nuclear program geared at achieving a long-term moratorium on such activities.
Russia and China have resisted a quick move to sanctions even though they agree to them as a lever. And French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy last week appeared to suggest that the demand to stop enrichment before talks was negotiable.
He later reversed himself. Still, such vacillation appeared to reflect that -- although Britain, France and Germany formally represent the European Union within the six-nation coalition -- a sizable number of countries within the 25-member EU oppose a quick move to sanctions.