Iran's top nuclear envoy said Wednesday he expected "new ideas" from a senior EU official at talks on resolving the deadlock between Tehran's refusal to freeze its uranium enrichment program and U.N Security Council demands that it do so.
"There are supposed to be new ideas introduced, and that's why we are here," Ali Larijani told reporters ahead of a meeting with Javier Solana, the European Union's senior foreign policy official. He added, however, that he was "not aware of the (specific) supposed initiatives to be made."
His remarks suggested that Solana — representing the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — might be coming to the table with a new formulation on the demanded enrichment freeze.
On the eve of Wednesday's talks, foreign government officials told The Associated Press that the six powers may be willing to allow Iran to keep some of its uranium enrichment program intact instead of demanding it be completely dismantled.
Solana, on arrival, refused to be drawn.
"I am always hopeful," he said. "I am an optimistic person by nature."
Recognizing that Iran would never accept a complete freeze, the powers are considering "a new definition of enrichment," one diplomat said, that could allow Iran to keep some of its program intact without actually producing enriched uranium.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack denied that the United States was "considering any proposals that would allow the Iranians to retain any enrichment-related activities."
But another U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, suggested there was potentially more flexibility in Washington's position than previously.
"We purposely left open the possibility that direct talks could happen by being a little less committed to the requirements to have a meeting," said the official. He alluded to previous demands of an all-encompassing freeze on all enrichment related activities.
Iran is running more than 1,300 centrifuge machines at its underground facility at Natanz. Its ultimate goal is to run 50,000 centrifuges a year, enough to churn out material for a network of nuclear power generators — or a full-scale nuclear weapons program.
The United States might accept allowing a set number of centrifuges to remain standing and assembled in series but not running, a diplomat said. Iran, he said, would likely push for keeping the machines operating, if not producing enriched uranium.
The six powers also want to reduce assembled and hooked-up centrifuges to less than 1,000.
A European official said hopes were that both sides could agree on at least "a different definition of suspension that we can work with."
The officials — some of them diplomats, others based in their capitals — spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing confidential information.
With agreement to strive for a new definition of enrichment, Larijani and Solana may be able to sidestep a deadlock that for months has thwarted the resumption of negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, said the officials, who were familiar with the discussions with Iran or specialized in nonproliferation issues.
Iran's defiance of a U.N. Security Council demand to suspend all activities linked to enrichment — a possible pathway to nuclear arms — has led to two sets of sanctions against the country, the latest last month.
Iran argues the sanctions are illegal, noting it has the right to enrich uranium to generate nuclear power under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Iranian officials say nuclear power is the only purpose of their program, rejecting suspicions that they ultimately want weapons-grade uranium for the fissile core of nuclear warheads.
But the United States and others say past suspicious nuclear activities, including a program Iran kept secret for nearly two decades, set the country apart from others that have endorsed the treaty.
The last face-to-face talks between Solana and Larijani were more than six months ago, and foundered over the same issue. Solana, representing the six powers, demanded that Iran dismantle not only fledging enrichment efforts but all linked aspects, including assembling centrifuges for enrichment and facilities to house such plants. Iran refused.
Negotiations between Iran and the three European nations broke down last year when the Iranian government refused to suspend enrichment in exchange for a package of economic and political inducements, including help in developing a peaceful nuclear program.
One of the diplomats said recognition by the United States and its allies that Iran would never accept their earlier demand of a full freeze dictated a decision to contemplate "a new definition of enrichment" that would allow Tehran to keep some of its program intact without actually turning out enriched material.
No firm agreement was expected Wednesday. Solana would have to report back to the six capitals he is representing, while Larijani would need to have any deal cleared with the Iranian government.