Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, right, prays during… (Farshid Motahari, European…)
WASHINGTON — Diplomats from six world powers arrived in Moscow on Sunday facing a double challenge: to coax concessions from Iran over its disputed nuclear program, and to keep the negotiations from collapsing if Tehran refuses.
After two previous rounds, the U.S. and other negotiators preparing for talks on Monday and Tuesday still don't understand Iran's intentions. They say Tehran continues to send confusing signals about whether it is willing to compromise. The alternative is more talk of war and an oil shock to the world economy.
The longer the diplomacy drags on, the more Iran will suffer from sanctions — but, at the same time, the more uranium it can enrich.
For now, the diplomatic action is moving at glacial speed. But few expect negotiations to come to a complete halt.
Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, promised European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton this month that Tehran would address a proposal for an interim deal that would require Iran to immediately suspend enrichment of uranium to a purity that could be converted relatively easily for use in nuclear bombs.
Jalili had ignored the proposal when he met last month in Baghdad with the six negotiating powers — Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the U.S. — so his comment was seen as a sign of a potential breakthrough at the Moscow talks.
Yet Jalili also told the legislature in Tehran that Iran won't compromise on its right to enrich uranium. He said he expected the six powers to address a list of Iranian grievances on topics unrelated to the nuclear program, a nonstarter for Washington and its allies.
In another troubling sign, Iran this month hit an impasse with the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, over a proposed deal that would have allowed the agency to broaden its often-frustrated inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities.
As a result, some diplomats headed to Russia aren't optimistic that Iran will accede to a deal any time soon. The slow progress has stirred talk in the group of pausing the talks to allow a European Union oil embargo and stiff new U.S. sanctions slated to begin on July 1 to further strangle Iran's already-battered economy.
A senior Western official warned Sunday that Iran "should come prepared to negotiate seriously and take concrete steps to address" a proposal that the six nations laid out in the last meeting. But the semiofficial Iranian news agency Mehr, quoting gloomy Iranian officials, said the talks had no chance of success.
Even a temporary suspension of the diplomacy carries risks. It could upset nervous oil markets and raise fresh anxieties about a military strike by Israel, which has warned that it may bomb Iran's nuclear facilities if diplomatic efforts fail.
Key lawmakers in Washington also signaled that they are losing patience with the lack of progress and threatened to impose even more crippling sanctions on Tehran.
On Friday, a bipartisan group of 44 senators signed a letter to President Obama, urging him to step up demands and to "reevaluate the utility of further talks" if no "substantive" progress is reached in Moscow.
Still, the Obama administration wants to keep diplomacy going if it could gradually lead to an acceptable solution short of war. Some diplomats believe that Iran's leaders, who have resisted making concessions for a decade, will ultimately conclude that the nuclear program is not worth international isolation and a shattered economy.
Although members of Congress and Israeli leaders have repeatedly expressed skepticism about the talks, there are few calls so far to simply walk away.
Whatever happens in Moscow, a sudden collapse of talks leading to war is the least likely scenario at this point. Iran still hopes to avert further sanctions, and European governments battling economic turmoil aren't eager for more. Neither is Obama, whose reelection campaign is likely to hinge on the economy.
An important new factor is Russia's role. Russia strongly opposes Western sanctions on Iran, but it doesn't want its southern neighbor to gain bomb-making capability.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov traded public denunciations last week over Russia's arming of the Syrian government, but diplomats say the flap is unlikely to undermine their efforts on Iran.