ISTANBUL/WASHINGTON – Iran and world powers discussed Tehran’s controversial
nuclear program for the first time in over a year on Saturday and, in what
Western diplomats called a constructive development given their low
expectations, agreed to meet again next month.
Catherine Ashton, the
European Union’s foreign policy chief who has headed negotiations for the six
international powers including the United States and Russia, told a news
conference after a day of talks in Istanbul that they arranged to meet the
Iranian delegation again in Baghdad on May 23.
“We want now to move to a
sustained process of dialogue,” Ashton told a news conference, saying
negotiators would take a “step-by-step” approach. “We will meet on May 23 in
“The discussions on the Iranian nuclear issue have been
constructive and useful,” she said. “We want now to move to a sustained process
of serious dialogue, where we can take urgent, practical steps to build
After a day in which diplomats had spoken of a more engaged
tone from Iranian officials compared to the 15 months of angry rhetoric on
either side that has filled the hiatus since the last meetings, Ashton called
the talks useful and constructive.
She said the negotiating powers wanted
Iran to meet its international obligations – it is a signatory to the treaty
which prevents the spread of nuclear weapons – and should reciprocate in
The talks were never expected to yield any major
breakthrough but diplomats believed a serious commitment from Iran would be
enough to schedule another round of talks for next month and start discussing
issues at the heart of the dispute.
Saeed Jalili, the chief Iranian
negotiator, told a news conference that “progress” had been made.
witnessed progress,” Jalili said. “There were differences of opinion... but the
points we agreed on were important.”
“The next talks should be based on
confidence-building measures, which would build the confidence of Iranians,”
Jalili said, adding an Iranian request for lifting of sanctions should be one of
the issues included.
Iran has been hit by new waves of Western economic
sanctions this year.
Western participants had said previously that
agreeing to meet for a second round of talks would constitute a successful day.
It may remove some heat from a crisis in which warnings from Israel of a
possible strike against Iranian facilities have stoked fears of a major war in
an already unsettled Middle East.
Israel made no comment Saturday on the
talks in Istanbul, with one official explaining that any comment Israel would
make at this time would not be “prudent.”
“We are waiting to see how the
talks play out,” the official said.
Last week, Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu said the talks should lead to the removal from Iran of all enriched
uranium, a halt to all further enrichment, and the closure of the underground
nuclear facility at Qom.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak set the bar a bit
lower, saying that while Iran should have to give up its entire stockpile of
uranium enriched to 20 percent, believed to be about 120 kilograms, and transfer the majority of its 5 tons of 3.5 enriched uranium out
of the country, it would be able to keep a minimum amount for energy
Barak also said Iran must open all of its nuclear facilities to
the IAEA, disclose its entire history of activity relating to its nuclear
weapons program, and suspend all enrichment activity. If Iran complied with
these conditions, he said it would be possible to agree to an arrangement
whereby a third country would transfer fuel rods to Iran for the purpose of
activating the Tehran Research Reactor.
Iran turned down a request by the
US for a rare bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the nuclear talks in
Istanbul on Saturday, the official Iranian news agency IRNA
There was no comment from US diplomats, whose country has not
had direct ties with Tehran for more than three decades.
followed contradictory accounts from two other Iranian news agencies on
prospects for a meeting between Jalili and the head of the US delegation, Under
Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman.
The US and Iran
broke off diplomatic ties after the 1979 Islamic revolution which toppled the
US-backed shah and both sides view each other with deep mistrust.
Iranian delegation rejected the request of Wendy Sherman, the representative of
the American delegation, for a bilateral meeting,” IRNA said.
semi-official Fars news agency had earlier quoted an “informed source” as
denying a report by a third agency, ISNA, that Jalili accepted a request for a
meeting with a US envoy.
Non-Iranian diplomats attending the talks in
Istanbul had questioned the ISNA report but still said Saturday’s meeting
between Iran and the six powers – the United States, Russia, France, China,
Germany and Britain – had gone well.
IRNA said Iranian diplomats in
Istanbul did hold bilateral meetings on Saturday with Russian delegates and with
Ashton, the main representative of the negotiating group of international
powers, as well with the Turkish hosts, who are not party to the
The talks between Iran and six world powers resumed after a
15- month gap, as delegates sought to find ways of resolving a dispute over
Tehran’s nuclear program and easing fears of a new Middle East war.
West accuses Iran of trying to develop a nuclear-weapons capability. Iran says
its program is peaceful. Tehran agreed to resume talks with the six – the five
permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany – after more than a
year of escalating rhetoric and tensions.
One diplomat described the
atmosphere as “completely different” from that of previous meetings, as Western
delegates watched out for signs that Iran was ready to engage seriously after
more than a year of threats and accusations.
The talks are unlikely to
yield any major breakthrough, but diplomats believe a serious commitment from
Iran could be enough to schedule another round of talks for next month and start
discussing issues at the heart of the dispute.
“The atmosphere is
constructive, the conversation is businesslike. As of the moment, things are
going well,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, who led the Russian
delegation, was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.
to resume talks with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus
Germany, after more than a year marked by escalating rhetoric and
The US and Israel have not ruled out military action to destroy
Iran’s nuclear sites.
In the run-up to the Turkey meeting, Western
diplomats said they hoped for enough progress to be able to schedule a new round
of negotiations, possibly in Baghdad, next month.
During the morning
round of talks Iranian chief nuclear negotiator Jalili did not state the kind of
preconditions that he did in the last meeting in early 2011, a diplomat
“He seems to have come with an objective to get into a process
which is a serious process,” the envoy said. “I would say it has been a useful
Iran says it will propose “new initiatives” in Istanbul,
though it is unclear whether it is now prepared to discuss curbs to its
enrichment program. But the atmosphere was positive.
“They met in a
constructive atmosphere,” said Michael Mann, a spokesman for Ashton, after the
morning session of talks. “We had a positive feeling that they did want to
Ashton, who is the main representative of the US, France,
Russia, China, Germany and Britain at the talks, added: “What we are here to do
is to find ways in which we can build confidence between us and ways in which we
can demonstrate that Iran is moving away from a nuclear weapons
The White House on Friday called the talks opening with Iran
the next day a “positive sign,” but said that Iran had to demonstrate its
seriousness with actions if the negotiations over the country’s nuclear program
were to succeed.
“The talks that are going forward is a positive sign,”
Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, said at a briefing aboard Air
Force One. “I think nobody expects to resolve all differences in one meeting,
but what we want is a positive environment where the Iranian government
demonstrates its seriousness and its commitment to pursuing serious
He confirmed that the US and the five other world powers
conducting the talks with Iran were considering a proposed next round in Iraq in
May, and said an addition rounds of talks would be one subject to be addressed
While Russia, one of the five other powers, has proposed
providing Iran with economic incentives, Rhodes said that the international
powers are “incredibly unified” behind international sanctions and over the need
for Iran to meet international demands that it halt enrichment of
Rhodes said the US is willing to consider gestures to Iran if
Tehran itself takes “concrete steps” that must happen relatively
“We want that negotiation to move forward with a sense of urgency,”
he said. “We do believe there’s time and space for diplomacy, but it’s not
In a rare opinion piece in an American newspaper, the Iranian
foreign minister took to the pages of The Washington Post Thursday to urge that
the parties enter negotiations on a basis of mutual respect and
Ali Akbar Salehi wrote that it was important that “all sides
will be committed to comprehensive, long-term dialogue aimed at resolving all
parties’ outstanding concerns” and that “all sides make genuine efforts to
reestablish confidence and trust.” He referred to Iran’s stated opposition to
weapons of mass destruction and its continued willingness to enter a dialogue
with world powers despite international sanctions.
Yet he warned, “If the
intention of dialogue is merely to prevent cold conflict from turning hot,
rather than to resolve differences, suspicion will linger. Trust will not be
The United States cut diplomatic ties with Iran in 1980
after Iranian students held 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days, and the
two sides have held very rare one-to-one meetings since then.
of the world’s largest oil producers, says its nuclear program has solely
peaceful objectives – to generate electricity and produce medical isotopes for
But its refusal to halt nuclear work – which can have
both civilian and military uses – has been punished with intensifying US and EU
sanctions against its lifeblood oil exports.
“Given that oil revenue
accounts for over half of government income, the budget will be under
significant strain this year as oil exports fall as a result of sanctions and
oil production is cut back by Iran as its pool of buyers begins to shrink,” said
Dubai-based independent analyst Mohammed Shakeel.
Western officials have
made clear their immediate priority is to persuade Tehran to cease the
higher-grade uranium enrichment it began in 2010. It has since expanded that
work, shortening the time it would need for any weapons “break-out.”
has signaled some flexibility over limiting its uranium enrichment to a fissile
purity of 20% – compared with the 5% level required for nuclear power plants –
but also suggests it is not ready to do so yet.