Iran is close to an agreement that would include a suspension of uranium enrichment but wants the deal to include a provision that the temporary halt be kept secret, according to Bush administration officials.
Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, has been working with Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani on the enrichment-suspension deal that could be completed this week.
Disclosure of talks on the secret element of the arrangement comes as Mr. Solana and Mr. Larijani are set to meet today or tomorrow in Europe when the deal could be completed, said officials opposed to the deal, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
According to the officials, the suspension of uranium enrichment by Iran would be for 90 days, so additional talks could be held with several European nations.
Many U.S. officials are opposing the agreement as a further concession to Iran, which continues to defy a United Nations' call for a complete halt to uranium enrichment. A Security Council resolution had given Iran until Aug. 31 to stop its enrichment program or face the imposition of international sanctions. Tehran ignored the deadline, but diplomacy has continued.
Some in the State Department are supporting the deal, which they view as a step toward achieving a complete halt to uranium enrichment.
However, other officials said that keeping any suspension secret would be difficult and that it would drag the United States into further negotiations with Iran.
Iran is seeking to continue talks on its nuclear program while attempting to avoid the imposition of sanctions, something the Bush administration favors but that several other key states, including Russia, oppose.
The United States would then be faced with the difficult position of negotiating against the 90-day deadline, a position that favors Iran.
"The Iranians are very good negotiators," said one official close to the issue.
The officials opposed to the deal want any agreement on uranium suspension to be announced publicly.
Also, any suspension of enrichment would require International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections to verify that work has stopped at Iranian facilities. The inspections would likely be disclosed, exposing any secret arrangement with Iran on suspension.
Failing to publicly announce the suspension also would be a face-saving measure for the Iranian government.
Officials said President Bush is not happy with the secrecy demand, although he continues to support the use of diplomacy to solve the problem.
Asked about the pending deal, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said in an e-mail, "The terms laid out by the Security Council are clear: Iran needs to suspend its uranium enrichment activities, and it needs to do so in a verifiable way. If it does, we can start negotiations. If it doesn't, we move to sanctions. It is a clear and unambiguous standard."
In New York yesterday, Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said that talks between European and Iranian officials were on track and that a negotiated settlement is possible.
"I think very soon they will have the next round of discussions," Mr. Mottaki told the Associated Press, noting that "there was good connection between the two sides" after Iran's Aug. 22 response to a package of incentives offered by six nations -- the United States, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia -- for a halt in enrichment efforts.
A recent report by the IAEA said that as late as Aug. 24, Iran had continued to feed uranium hexafluoride into its 164-centrifuge cascade, which is used to enrich uranium. The report also said that Iran is building additional facilities, including a second 164-centrifuge cascade and that work on a plutonium-based heavy-water reactor is continuing.
The Bush administration is convinced that Iran's nuclear program is intended to develop weapons, contrary to repeated statements from Iranian leaders that the program is aimed at producing electrical power for civilian use.
The Bush administration wants to impose internationally approved economic sanctions on Iran in the next several weeks, based on the IAEA report and Iran's missing the deadline to halt enrichment.