But with progress at a crawl, officials and analysts on both sides expressed concern that the chances for a deal were being undermined by political divisions, in Tehran as well as in Western capitals. Hard-liners in Iran have spoken publicly against making any nuclear concessions, while in the United States, conservatives in Congress have warned against a deal that would allow Iran to retain any ability to enrich uranium, even for nonmilitary purposes.
“The problem for the Iranians is not the date; it’s a worry that the meeting will not be successful,” said Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former nuclear negotiator for Iran who lives in the United States. “They want to have a meeting as soon as possible, but they don’t want to be blamed if there’s another failure.”
The maneuvering over meeting dates and venues cast a shadow over a visit to Iran this week by officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog. The IAEA is prodding Tehran to grant access to military facilities where the agency believes Iran secretly conducted research on nuclear weapons a decade ago. Iran insists its nuclear program is exclusively peaceful.
Although Iran and the IAEA reported progress last month toward resolving the dispute, the agency’s chief, Yukiya Amano, told reporters that he was “not necessarily optimistic” about the outcome of the meeting. Analysts say Iran would probably preserve its bargaining chips for the broader dialogue with the group known as P5-plus-1 — the United States, Britain, China, France, Russia and Germany.
Three rounds of talks last year between Iran and the P5-plus-1 ended in deadlock. But Iranian envoys signaled a possible diplomatic thaw last month by agreeing to resume negotiations about possible curbs on the nuclear program. The news sent diplomats scurrying to pack for meetings that were expected to begin in mid-December or immediately after the New Year holiday.
But two tentative meeting dates passed without a response, prompting speculation that the Iranians were stalling for time or were locked in an internal debate over whether to agree to limits on its nuclear program in return for future sanctions relief, diplomats and analysts said.
“They’ve gone to ground,” said one senior U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy. “We’re all waiting, and everyone is checking with everyone else, but there’s been nothing at all.”