WASHINGTON/NEW YORK - Senior American and Iranian officials will meet on Monday and Tuesday in Geneva, the US State Department said on Saturday, in an apparent bid to break a logjam in wider nuclear negotiations that resume later this month.
The US delegation will be led by Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, who conducted the secret negotiations that helped bring about the Nov. 24 interim nuclear agreement between Iran and the major powers. It will also include the senior US negotiator with Iran, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman.
The most recent round of nuclear talks between Iran and the six powers in Vienna last month ran into difficulties, with each side accusing the other of having unrealistic demands in negotiations aimed at curbing Tehran's atomic program in exchange for an end to sanctions.
The US decision to head to Geneva and meet with the Iranian delegation, which a senior US official said might be led by Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, appeared to reflect Washington's desire to break the deadlock.
"We've always said that we would engage bilaterally with the Iranians if it can help advance our efforts, in active coordination with the P5+1," the US official told Reuters. "In order to really seriously test whether we can reach a diplomatic solution with Iran on its nuclear program, we believe we need to engage in very active and very aggressive diplomacy."
The official said the talks next week were not negotiations.
"These are really consultations to exchange views in advance of the next negotiating round in Vienna," the official said.
The United States is set to join the other members of the six-power negotiating group known as the P5+1 - Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia - and Iran in Vienna for a full round of negotiations June 16-20. The Vienna talks are coordinated by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
The US official said Washington was being open and public about the bilateral consultations with Iran "unlike before when it needed to be kept very discreet to give it the best chance of success."
"We haven't yet seen the kind of realism on the Iranian side that we need to see or seen them make some of the tough choices we're going to have to see," the official said.
"We're at a critical moment" in the negotiations, the official added.
The talks are aimed at reaching a deal under which Tehran would curb parts of its nuclear program in exchange for an end to sanctions that have crippled its economy.
Western officials say that Iran insists on maintaining an excessive uranium enrichment capability, which Tehran says is necessary so that it is not dependent on foreign suppliers for fuel for its nuclear reactors.
Tehran rejects allegations from Western powers and their allies that it is seeking the capability to produce atomic weapons under cover of a civilian energy program.
The US official did not provide any details on the latest round of expert-level talks this week on the Iranian nuclear issue in Vienna that included representatives of the six powers and Iran.
At last month's Vienna negotiations, US and Iranian officials said Iran and the six world powers had made little progress on ending their dispute, raising doubts over the prospects for a breakthrough by a July 20 deadline.
After three months of mostly comparing expectations rather than negotiating compromises, the sides had intended to start drafting a final agreement that could end more than a decade of enmity and mistrust and dispel fears of a wider Middle East war. But the drafting, diplomats said, never really got off the ground.