New waves of acrimony between Iran and world powers over the Islamic Republic's disputed presidential vote are dimming what were already modest prospects for meaningful negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear program.
President Barack Obama's offer of direct U.S.-Iranian talks on nuclear and other issues still stands. But Tehran seemed uninterested in new negotiations even before Iran's crackdown on demonstrators protesting what they say was a skewed election in favor of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad burdened already tense relations with the West.
In a reflection of how unlikely any nuclear meeting has become, a senior Iranian official said Wednesday that the EU had lost the right to talk to Iran about its atomic activities.
The last meeting on the nuclear issue was a year ago. It ended within hours, with Iran spurning an offer by six world powers — Washington and the other permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany.
At the Geneva talks, the six offered to refrain from new U.N sanctions if Iran froze its uranium enrichment program. The tradeoff was designed to set the scene for in-depth talks the West hopes would end in Tehran agreeing to a long-term freeze of enrichment, which can make both nuclear fuel and nuclear warhead material.
Periodic contacts with Iranian officials by Javier Solana, the EU envoy acting as an intermediary for the six powers, have remained inconclusive since then — dashing hopes that Obama's outreach — an offer of one-on-one talks with the Iranians — would break the deadlock.
Iran's position remains unchanged
Iran's position remains the same — its program is for peaceful purposes and no compromise on enrichment, despite three sets of Security Council sanctions and the implicit threat of more.
Chances of new talks diminished further Wednesday after a senior Iranian official was quoted as saying the EU had disqualified itself from such discussions because of its "interference" in the post-election unrest. Iran accuses the EU of supporting the anti-government rallies.
The EU "has totally lost the competence and qualifications needed for holding any kind of talks with Iran," Iran's chief of staff, Gen. Hasan Firouzabadi, was quoted as saying by the semi-official Fars News Agency.
The EU struggled for a measured response as it prepared to debate a British request that all 27 member nations pull their envoys from Iran.
Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, said Europe and others must take care not to become "an excuse for use of violence or use of repression inside Iran."
Even before the acrimony, chances of nuclear compromise were slim.
Responding to the most recent formal overture in April from the U.S., Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia for a new round of nuclear talks, Iran said it was ready for constructive dialogue but reiterated that it won't freeze its program.
But the West has not sweetened its offer — although time is running out in the effort to blunt Iran's nuclear threat.
Since its clandestine enrichment efforts were revealed more than six years ago, Tehran has steadily increased activities at its cavernous underground facility at Natanz, a city about 300 miles south of Tehran.
The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security recently estimated that — even without expanding its present program — Iran could accumulate enough material to produce weapons-grade uranium for two warheads by February 2010.
Yet Iran continues to expand its capabilities. And both Tehran and Washington are ratcheting up the tough talk in the wake of Iran's crackdown on opposition protests. The rising tensions further hurt the already feeble chances of nuclear compromise.
Obama said in March that he sought engagement with Iran "that is honest and grounded in mutual respect," raising expectations that there may be an opening for dialogue.
Gloves come off
But the gloves came off last week, when Obama declared America and the entire world "appalled and outraged" by Iran's violent efforts to crush post-election dissent and warned that the way Tehran responds will shape its relationship with other countries, including the United States.
Ahmadinejad then vowed to make the U.S. regret its criticism of Iran's crackdown and said the "mask has been removed" from the Obama administration's efforts to improve relations.
So where does this leave Obama's promise to replace the fist of his White House predecessor and extend an open hand to Iran? What are the chances of meaningful talks to bridge Iran's insistence on expanding what it says is a peaceful nuclear program and Washington's demand that it freeze such activities because of concerns they could be used to make nuclear arms?
U.S. officials insist the door remains open, despite questions about the legitimacy of Ahmadinejad's re-election and his anti-American rhetoric.
"It's in the United States' national interest to make sure that we have employed all elements at our disposal, including diplomacy, to prevent Iran from achieving that nuclear capacity," said Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
And David Axelrod, Obama's top adviser, said Washington was "looking to ... sit down and talk to the Iranians."
Still he qualified his comments with a veiled threat of further U.N. sanctions should Iran remain defiant.
In remarks reminiscent of the Bush administration's "carrot and stick" approach, Axelrod said that any negotiations with Tehran will offer "two paths ... one brings them back into the community of nations, and the other has some very stark consequences."
Summits unlikely to change Iran
Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi was blunter, saying Group of Eight leaders meeting next week in Italy will discuss possible additional sanctions against Iran.
But permanent Security Council members Russia and China are unlikely to support such a move. They traditionally oppose harsh anti-Iran action, and Moscow has already said it considers the elections legitimate.
And even if the unexpected occurs — even if the postelection storm blows over and the two sides meet one on one — chances are slim that Iran is ready to rethink its nuclear stance.
After all, Iranian insistence that the nation's right to enrichment is not negotiable is what doomed previous nuclear talks with Tehran. And even Iranians critical of Ahmadinejad are proud of their nation's nuclear prowess — a view that undercuts the likelihood of the hardline president compromising on enrichment to mollify popular post-election unrest at home.
"If Ahmadinejad wanted to reach out domestically, he would do so on domestic issues, because there is no sign there is any disagreement on the nuclear issue," says John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. in the previous American administration.