Istanbul, Apr 14: A new Iranian willingness to discuss its nuclear program in crunch negotiations with world powers yesterday raised the chances of a second round of more in-depth talks very soon, diplomats said. In a reminder however of Tehran’s enmity towards Washington, a source close to Iran’s delegation said they spurned a request from their US counterparts for what would have been a rare bilateral meeting on the sidelines. “There is a positive atmosphere … contrasting with the last time” in January 2011, Michael Mann, spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, told reporters.
“The principles for future talks seem to be there,” he said, adding that the venue and date for the next round of more detailed discussions – possibly in four to six weeks in Baghdad – was to be “probably” decided later yesterday. The last time Iran met with the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – the so-called P5+1 – in Istanbul, it quickly became apparent the talks would go nowhere. “They (Iranians) are showing a readiness this time to talk about their nuclear programme and they are not raising preconditions as they did 15 months ago,” a P5+1 diplomat, who wished to remain anonymous, told AFP. “If things continue in this direction we will be ready to start a cycle of negotiations,” the official said, adding however he was “cautious because you never know with the Iranians.”
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, who is leading Moscow’s delegation, also gave an encouraging appraisal, telling the Interfax news agency that the atmosphere was “constructive” and the talks “business-like”. “What was very striking as soon as Jalili started talking was that there was a difference in tone, in mood,” another diplomat said, referring to the head of the Iranian delegation, Saeed Jalili. The diplomat also noted that there was a “clear sign that Iran… wants to get into a serious process”. The envoy said that a second round of talks should take place in no more than a month.
However, the Iranians were not ready for a direct meeting with their US counterparts. Diplomats had earlier said that the US delegation led by Wendy Sherman, undersecretary for political affairs, had let Iran know – via Ashton – that she was ready for face-to-face talks with Jalili. “Their request was presented numerous times but Iran has refused,” said the source close to the Islamic republic’s team said, however. The last time that the US and Iran held bilateral talks about the nuclear issue was on the sidelines of a similar meeting in Geneva on Oct 1, 2009, when William Burns, the senior official leading Washington’s delegation, met Jalili.
The UN Security Council has imposed four rounds of sanctions on Iran because of suspicions that its civilian nuclear program is a cover for a secret atomic weapons drive, a charge Iran vigorously denies. The international community’s main concern, particularly for Iran’s arch foe Israel, is Tehran’s growing capacity to enrich uranium, which can be used for peaceful purposes but, when purified further, for a nuclear weapon. Of particular worry is the formerly secret Fordo site in a mountain bunker near the holy city of Qom, currently enriching to 20-percent purity but which experts say could be reconfigured to produce 90-percent weapons-grade material. Fordo’s expansion plus a major UN atomic agency report in November on alleged “weaponisation” efforts have led to tighter EU and US sanctions on Iran’s oil sector due to bite this summer, as well as talk of Israeli military strikes.
Ahead of yesterday’s talks Western powers stressed that they were in no mood for a repeat of previous doomed attempts at resolving once and for all the Iranian nuclear issue. As he seeks re-election this November, US President Barack Obama in particular is wary of being accused of being duped by empty Iranian promises that just buy Tehran more time to inch closer to getting the bomb. At the same time all parties in the talks, not least energy-hungry China, want the crisis resolved in order to bring down oil prices to help the stuttering global economy.
Whether a second round of talks would succeed remains to be seen, however, with Iran likely to insist on the right to a peaceful nuclear program while demanding sanctions be eased. US media reports have suggested that the P5+1 want Iran to halt all enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, shutter Fordo and send Tehran’s stockpiles of enriched uranium abroad. The world powers also want Iran to grant the International Atomic Energy Agency greater access to ease fears that it might have covert facilities, and to answer accusations in the IAEA’s November report.