World powers handed Iran a new deadline early next month to halt uranium enrichment, a senior European diplomat said on Wednesday, as US President George W. Bush warned "time is of the essence" in settling the nuclear showdown.
Hopes of a snap breakthrough in the crisis however were already dimmed, with an announcement that EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana would not meet, as expected, this week in New York with Iranian negotiators.
The five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany and Italy agreed late on Tuesday to give European negotiators more time to convince Iran to give up enrichment before seeking sanctions under a UN resolution
A senior European diplomat told reporters the new deadline would stretch to early next month, in the hope that new talks between Solana and Iranian negotiator Ali Larijani would bear fruit.
The UN Security Council had set an Aug. 31 deadline for Iran to comply with the demand for a suspension of enrichment operations. But Tehran, which denies US claims it is seeking a nuclear weapons, has so far refused to comply.
Bush meanwhile warned time was running out for Iran, and again wondered out loud whether the latest delay was a symptom of Tehran running out the clock.
"I'm not going to discuss with you our intelligence on the subject, but time is of the essence," Bush said, when asked on CNN whether he backed the Israeli line that only a few months remained before Iranian scientists learned how to enrich uranium -- the critical step towards building a bomb.
"I'm concerned that Iran is trying to stall, and to try to buy time, and therefore it seems like a smart policy is to push this issue along as hard as we can and we are," Bush said.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meanwhile declined to confirm the new deadline but also warned diplomacy couldn't stretch on indefinitely.
"Everyone wants to resolve this through negotiations and everyone wants to solve this thing quickly," she said. "There is a really excellent opportunity for Iran to engage with the international community, if it will simply meet a condition [freezing uranium enrichment]."
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said on Wednesday that major powers -- Britain, China, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and the US -- agreed that Iran must respond rapidly.
"We must have a response fairly quickly," he said, "it's becoming urgent."
At Tuesday's meeting, Rice backed away from the long-standing US position that Iran should face sanctions immediately for failing to meet the Aug. 31 UN deadline.
She agreed to permit a new round of negotiations between Solana and Larijani in hopes of convincing Tehran to meet the UN demand, US officials said.
If Iran suspends its enrichment, Rice said she would personally attend the launch of direct negotiations with Tehran aimed at rewarding the Islamic republic.
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