DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Iranian officials have made no secret about their desire to reopen nuclear talks with the United States and other world powers as economic sanctions dig deeper -- with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei 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 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.
On Saturday, the White House 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.
"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 the United States and Iran have agreed in principle to negotiations. The paper said Iran insisted the talks wait until after the Nov. 6 election.
Such contacts would be extremely rare after more than 30 years of diplomatic estrangement -- Washington and Tehran have had no official 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.
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 United States and its allies, particularly Israel, would agree to allow some degree of uranium enrichment.
Iran's leaders portray the nuclear fuel expertise as a symbol of national pride. Yet the West cannot easily give a green light to Iran's enrichment program. The United States and allies fear that program could quickly move to weapons-grade material -- an assertion Iran denies.