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.
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