WASHINGTON - By subtly slowing down its uranium-enrichment efforts, Iran may be signaling that it wants to avoid a direct confrontation over its nuclear program, at least in the near term, according to U.S. and other Western officials. The action has also led some analysts to conclude that Iran's leaders are showing signs that they may be more interested in a deal to end the nuclear standoff with the West.
Evidence began emerging last summer that the Iranians were diverting a significant portion of their medium-enriched uranium for use in a small research reactor, converting it into a form that cannot easily be used in a weapon.
One U.S. official said the move amounted to trying to "put more time on the clock to solve this," characterizing it as a step "you have to assume was highly calculated, because everything the Iranians do in a negotiation is highly calculated."
Israel's departing defense minister, Ehud Barak, came to a similar conclusion in October when he said that his country could safely back away from threats of military action against Iran, at least until the late spring or summer of 2013.
But U.S. officials cautioned against drawing firm conclusions about Iran's ultimate intentions.
A new session of talks involving Iran and six major powers, including the United States, is expected next year, and U.S. officials say they still can't determine whether Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is ready to strike a deal.
A quiet feeler seeking direct talks with Iran that the administration put out after President Obama's re-election last month resulted in "no real response," another senior official said, adding: "It wasn't that they said yes or no. They said nothing."
These uncertainties underlie the desire in Western countries to understand why Iran appears to be keeping its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium -- which could be converted to bomb fuel in weeks or months -- to a level below the amount necessary to build a single weapon.