Israel watched the meeting in Baghdad that began on Wednesday between Iran and six world powers carefully, but refrained from commenting on the content because it was not immediately clear where the talks were headed.
Iran and the P5+1 – the US, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany – exchanged unusually detailed proposals, though no breakthrough appeared to be in the offing. Notable differences remained over when Iran would be rewarded with relief from economic sanctions.
As the talks got under way, Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon said that Tehran was “toying with the world” to gain time. Among the ministers inside Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s inner cabinet, he is considered to be taking a more cautious approach to military action against Iran.
“Tight sanctions must continue, alongside international isolation, support for the opposition and a credible military option,” he said. “[The] military option can be prevented if all the other measures are taken. But if none of that helps, someone might then have to take military action against Iran.”
The two sides, according to a Western diplomat, “had a detailed exchange this morning,” and “the atmosphere was businesslike.”
In the afternoon, another diplomat said, Iran reacted to the offers and “also broadened out the discussions to touch on other areas we see as non-core issues.”
Iranian media close to the Tehran government said its chief negotiator Saeed Jalili presented a five-point package covering a “comprehensive” range of nuclear and nonnuclear issues.
The official news agency IRNA sounded a note of discord by quoting Iranian officials referring to the big-power proposal as “nitpicking” while student news agency ISNA said: “Apparently from the Iranian point of view this package is not balanced.”
However, those leaks did not appear to be Tehran’s final response as the talks ran on into the evening.
In Washington, US officials said they expected Iran to take steps to rein in its nuclear program before the West makes reciprocal gestures.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the world powers “put forward a detailed proposal, which includes confidence-building measures that can pave the way for Iran to demonstrate that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.” She said that part of this proposal included “step-by-step reciprocal steps aimed at near-term action on our part if Iran takes it own steps.”
“This is a package of first steps,” she continued. “So Iran would take some steps and then we would take some steps.” But she would not detail what these steps entailed and whether there was a timeline in place for implementing them.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the fact that the talks were taking place in Baghdad as scheduled, building on the first round of talks held last month, was “a sign of progress.”
He stressed that “Iran must demonstrate it is serious about moving forward,” and reiterated that the “fact that there are positive steps forward is absolutely worth noting, but we judge Iran by its actions, not by its promises.”
Carney also indicated the US plans to continue applying pressure on Tehran even as talks are under way.
“We will continue to press forward with our allies and partners with the unprecedented sanctions regime,” he said.
On Monday, the US Senate passed fresh sanctions language that now must be reconciled with a House bill before being sent to the White House for the president’s signature.
Asked whether the Obama administration endorsed the bill, Nuland declined to specify the administration’s position on the grounds that it was draft legislation.
But she said, “We are talking to Congress in general about what more can be done to tighten the sanctions on Iran.”
The world powers’ overall goal in the talks is an Iranian agreement to curb uranium enrichment in a transparent, verifiable way to ensure it is for peaceful purposes only. Iran’s priority is to secure an end to sanctions isolating the country and damaging its economy.
The pivotal proposal by the six, led by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, was for Iran to halt its enrichment of uranium to the higher fissile concentration of 20 percent, her spokesman Michael Mann said as talks got under way.
That is the Iranian nuclear advance most worrying to the West since it largely overcomes technical obstacles to reaching 90%, or bomb-grade, enrichment.
Iran says it is enhancing the fissile purity to such a degree only for medical research.
“We have a new offer on the table which addresses our main concerns about the Iranian nuclear program: The 20% enrichment question,” Mann told reporters. “We hope the Iranians respond positively and we can make progress today.”
Israel has said consistently that it will only be satisfied if Iran ends all uranium enrichment, transfers all enriched uranium out of the country and closes the underground facility at Qom.
In a separate interview with Iran’s state-run English-language Press TV, Mann said no final deal was expected in Baghdad because progress was likely to be only gradual.
He said toughened sanctions, especially an EU ban on Iranian oil exports due to take full effect on July 1, had helped to finally draw Iran into serious negotiations.
Iran has hinted at flexibility on higher-grade enrichment although analysts caution that it would be unlikely to compromise much while sanctions remain in place.
The talks were expected to extend into Thursday.
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, speaking to reporters in Tehran, said: “The ideas fielded to us speak of the fact that the other side would like to make Baghdad a success. We hope that in a day or two we can bring good news.”
Salehi also warned that Iran would not bow to pressure.
“Their policies of pressure and intimidation are futile. They have to adopt policies to show goodwill to solve this issue.”
Russia said the Islamic Republic appeared ready for serious discussion of substantive steps to resolve the impasse in return for the phased removal of sanctions.
Speaking of preparatory discussions before Baghdad, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow: “We got the clear impression... that the Iranian side is ready to seek agreement on concrete actions.”
These would be taken step by step.
Another proposed step will be an updated version of an idea first floated in 2009 that envisaged Iran shipping out the bulk of its stockpile of lowgrade uranium – which is potential nuclear weapons fuel – in return for higher-enriched fuel for the medical research reactor in Tehran, a diplomat said.
It was unclear whether that idea would gain traction after Iran’s announcement on Tuesday that it had supplied its first batch of domestically made fuel to that reactor – a message probably meant to boost its leverage in negotiations.
“The key issue is the 20% enrichment potential. This has to be addressed in order to have a productive outcome,” said one Western diplomat.
“The marching orders for Baghdad are to have concrete ideas on the table, maybe not necessarily agree on all details of these ideas, but to have a clear commitment.”Reuters contributed to this report