DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Iranian officials have made no secret about their desire to reopen nuclear talks with the U.S. and other world powers as economic sanctions dig deeper — with Iran's supreme leader even depicting his envoys as waiting at the negotiating table.
But Tehran's proposals remain essentially echoes of demands made during previous rounds of dead-end talks that tried to force the West into a corner: Whether or not to allow the Islamic Republic to keep some level of uranium enrichment despite worries the labs could become the foundation for an eventual nuclear weapons program.
Iran has signaled it could open bargaining over its highest-level uranium enrichment — now at 20 percent — in exchange for step-by-step easing of sanctions and international acknowledgment that Tehran has the "right" to make lower-grade nuclear fuel. Iran also could push to expand the agenda to include regional issues such as the Syrian civil war against Tehran's key ally Bashar Assad.
Stripped bare, however, the impasse is largely over Iran's ability to make nuclear fuel and whether the U.S. and its allies — particularly Israel — would agree to allow some degree of uranium enrichment.
It's perhaps the one issue that Tehran cannot put in play. Iran's leaders portray the nuclear fuel expertise as a symbol of national pride and Iran's self-declared role as the Muslim world's technological leader.
Yet the West cannot easily give a green light to Iran's enrichment program, making the chances for a breakthrough in any negotiations a major test of wills between the sides. The U.S. and allies fear Iran's uranium enrichment could quickly move to weapons-grade material — an assertion Iran denies.
In France, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told Europe-1 radio that Iran appears on track to reach the ability to produce a nuclear weapon by the first half of next year. He said unspecified experts have made the prediction based on "absolutely indisputable" data, but gave no other details.
Fabius' comments echoed a statement by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the U.N. General Assembly last month that the world has until next summer at the latest to stop Iran before it can build an atomic bomb. Netanyahu said Tehran would be ready to move to the "final stage" of making such a weapon by then.
With the U.S. election less than three weeks away, both the Obama White House and Republican challenger Mitt Romney are cautious about discussing potential compromises as Iran's economy shows signs of increasing strain from sanctions, including a plummet in the value of Iran's currency.
The U.S. and its European allies strongly favor a mix of economic pressure and diplomacy to seek nuclear concessions from Iran and, at the same time, try to undercut Israeli calls to keep a military option in the forefront.
"There is no question about the desire to keep talks going from all sides," said Bruno Tertrais, an Iranian affairs analyst at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. "The stumbling point is over how to get past the preliminary maneuvers and into real negotiations."
The White House on Saturday said it was prepared for one-on-one talks with Iran as a possible parallel initiative with a larger negotiations group, the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany. But National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor denied any deal had been reached for bilateral Washington-Tehran dialogue.
Such contacts would be extremely rare after a more than 30-year diplomatic estrangement — Washington and Tehran have had no official diplomatic relations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution — but the two countries have taken part in Baghdad-hosted talks over Iraq stability plans and have shared information on international efforts such as anti-drug trafficking.
"The onus is on the Iranians" to convince the world they aren't seeking nuclear weapons, Vietor said. "Otherwise they will continue to face crippling sanctions and increased pressure."
The statement was released shortly after The New York Times reported that the U.S. and Iran have agreed in principle for the first time to negotiations. The paper said Iran has insisted the talks wait until after the Nov. 6 election.
On Sunday, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi refused to discuss the report, saying "it is not our responsibility to comment on what they say." However, he reiterated Iran's traditional stance that the country will hold no direct nuclear talks with the U.S. and all dialogue must be through the seven-nation framework.
He predicted the next round could be as soon as late November. Some analysts believe Iran is unlikely to make any additional overtures until after the U.S. election.
What Iran has put forward so far is effectively a two-track path.
One is seeking to secure an international pledge that it can continue uranium enrichment at some level, perhaps at lower grades for its lone energy-producing reactor. Iran is a member of the U.N. treaty overseeing nuclear technology and insists its uranium labs are within the guidelines. The U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, however, says Iran still needs to open up more sites for inspection.
The second goal is getting the West to roll back sanctions, which have cut into Iran's critical oil exports and cut off access to most international banking networks. A panic on exchange markets this month plunged Iran's rial nearly 40 percent to record lows against the U.S. dollar. The currency on Sunday again flirted with the all-time low of 35,500 rials to the dollar.
But the U.S. and allies would likely require major concessions from Iran — that the leadership may be unwilling to give — for any significant sanctions relief just as the economic squeeze appears to be bringing more pain. Last week, the European Union banned imports of Iranian natural gas and imposed other restrictions on trade and financial dealings — on top of a previous embargo of Iranian oil.
Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast described the new EU measures as "inhuman," but said they would not force any retreat on the country's nuclear program.
Sergey Barseqian, an independent Iranian political analyst, said the prospects for renewed talks are stuck in a "negative loop" with the West pressing harder on sanctions and Iran not willing to be portrayed as caving to the pressures.
"In practice, there is no initiative in Iran's hand" to restart talks, he said.
Iran's leaders also must juggle twin strategies.
For crowds at home, the Iranian hierarchy frames the country's nuclear advances as part of the country's modern identity. To a global audience, they display willingness for some degree of deal-making.
Last week, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Iran will withstand the "conspiracies and tricks" of its foes, including sanctions and "talk of military aggression." But he also said Iran has never stepped away from the nuclear talks, which were last held in Moscow in June.
"The West ... says pressures on the Islamic Republic are aimed at forcing it to return to table of the talks," said Khamenei. "Have we ever left the negotiating table?"
The foreign ministry spokesman, Mehmanparast, last week reinforced the message, saying Iran was prepared to "show flexibility" over the 20 percent-enriched uranium if the West would give some ground.
"The other party needs to take measures to fully recognize Iran's nuclear rights and Iran's enrichment for peaceful purposes," he added.
The 20 percent fuel is needed for Tehran's medical research reactor, whose output includes isotopes for cancer treatment. A lower level of enrichment, 3.5 percent, is needed for Iran's electricity-producing reactor.
In the previous talks, the West demanded that Iran halt its 20 percent enrichment, ship out its stockpiles and shut down the enrichment labs at a subterranean facility south of Tehran that is believed to be virtually impervious to aerial attacks.
On Saturday, Iranian nuclear chief Fereidoun Abbasi told the official IRNA news agency that negotiations will "will be continued."
"There is no particular problem in the direction of the talks," he said.
Associated Press writer Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.