Iran is continuing to try to buy time to further develop its nuclear program, and its gambit is apparently working. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said on Saturday that the U.S. would be prepared to hold direct talks with Iran over its nuclear program if Iran showed it was serious about such talks.
"We have made it clear at the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally with the Iranian leadership, we would not make it a secret that we were doing that, [and] we would let our partners know if that occasion presented itself," Biden said at an international security conference in Munich.
"That offer stands, but it must be real and tangible and there has to be an agenda that they are prepared to speak to. We are not just prepared to do it for the exercise."
Biden also said, "There is still time, there is still space for diplomacy backed by pressure to succeed." He did not specify any time frame.
He insisted that "the ball is in the government of Iran's court" to show that it is negotiating in good faith.
Asked when the U.S. might hold direct talks with Iran, Biden replied, "When the Iranian leadership, the supreme leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei], is serious."
Talks involving all five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany have made little headway while several rounds of international sanctions have cut into Iran's oil sales and financial transactions. Biden called the sanctions "the most robust" in history.
"But we have also made clear that Iran's leaders need not sentence their people to economic deprivation and international isolation," Biden said.
Meanwhile, Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said on Sunday that the six world powers had proposed holding a new round of talks in Kazakhstan on Feb. 25.
"I have good news," he said at the Munich Security Conference. "I heard yesterday that the P5+1 or EU3+3 will be meeting in Kazakhstan on Feb. 25."
He did not make clear whether Iran had agreed to the meeting.
A European diplomat said the six powers had proposed a new round of talks on Feb. 25 in Kazakhstan but that Iran had still not given a firm answer. The two sides have been haggling over a date and venue for new talks for weeks.
Salehi said he would give "positive consideration" to Biden's remarks.
Salehi said there was "no red line for bilateral negotiations" as long as the other side had a real intention to resolve the issue.
Last month, Iran — in a defiant move ahead of new talks expected soon with world powers — announced plans to vastly increase its pace of uranium enrichment. Enriched uranium can be used to make both reactor fuel and the fissile core of warheads.
Iran insists it does not want nuclear arms and argues it has a right to enrich uranium for a civilian nuclear power program, but suspicion persists that the real aim is nuclear weapons.
Analysts have suggested that with his re-election behind him, U.S. President Barack Obama might have more leeway to take on direct negotiations with Iran.
That makes the year ahead critical for chances of overcoming a standoff that, if left to fester further, could see Iran approach nuclear weapons capability, possibly provoking military action by the U.S. or Israel and inflaming the Middle East.
Progress on Iran would also help ease regional tensions as the U.S. prepares to pull most combat troops out of Iran's neighbor, Afghanistan, by the end of 2014.
Many believe no deal is possible without a U.S.-Iranian thaw, requiring direct talks addressing myriad sources of mutual mistrust and hostility lingering since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution and the hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
Iran has avoided direct, public talks with the U.S., though some suggest Iran would eventually welcome an opportunity to end its international isolation.
Speaking at a news conference in Munich, Republican Senator John McCain said he would have no objection to direct talks, but questioned how much these would achieve if fundamental questions over Iran's nuclear program remained unresolved.
"I don't know when we will have direct talks between the United States and Iran," McCain said. "That is a subject for the president of the United States. I don't think anyone here objects to that." But, he added, "To [say we] have grounds for optimism, I think, would be a mistake."
With Iran holding its own presidential elections in June, hopes of progress before then are limited.
The U.S. and its allies, however, do not have an indefinite amount of time to negotiate. Notwithstanding the current stalemate, Iran's nuclear program is advancing and international consensus on sanctions may be hard to maintain.
Israel, which describes the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat, has made clear it would be ready to bomb Iran's nuclear sites to prevent that outcome. The U.S. has also said it will not rule out the use of military force.
"2013 is the decisive year on Iran, especially for political reasons," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said at the Munich conference. "We had elections in the United States and Israel, we will have elections in June in Iran, we see increasing capabilities especially with the issue of enrichment — let us be very frank, we did not have progress in the last 12 months, so it is obvious that we have to use this year."
Russia, which has been impatient with decades of U.S. hostility toward Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution but has backed U.N. Security Council sanctions since 2006, repeated on Saturday the need to find a diplomatic solution.
"Iran must know the overall game plan; it must see what is in it for it in this process. We need to convince Iran that this is not about regime change ... this mistrust must be overcome," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the conference.
That comment was echoed by Westerwelle, who said, "If we want to reach this goal, it would be wrong to discuss all these military options and possibilities. It is now important to focus our whole attention, all our effort for a diplomatic and political solution."
This would have to include a relief from sanctions as well as recognition of Iran's right to enrich uranium to the lower levels needed for civilian nuclear fuel, security analysts say.