At Nuclear Talks, Iran and 6 Nations Agree to Meet Again

New York Times      April 14, 2012
By Steven Erlanger

Saeed Jalili, of Iran, center, and Ahmet Davutoglu, right, of Turkey, spoke in Turkey on Saturday.
Pool photo by Tolga Adanali

ISTANBUL — Iran and six world powers agreed Saturday to hold a new round of talks in Baghdad on May 23, Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said after the first meeting in nearly 15 months on Tehran’s disputed nuclear program.

Ms. Ashton, speaking for the six nations, called the daylong meeting “constructive and useful” and said that “we want now to move to a sustained process of dialogue.” She gave no specifics on any proposals made during the sessions, but said that the six nations were satisfied that Iran was serious about negotiations that “will lead to concrete steps toward a comprehensive negotiated solution which restores international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program.”

Testing Iran’s willingness to negotiate seriously on its nuclear program was the purpose of this meeting, European and American officials said. That was a low bar to hurdle and represented no real breakthrough, and there were no negotiations here on specific steps or proposals. The lack of concrete detail is likely to lead to political criticism of President Obama as the presidential election campaign unfolds and will make the meeting in Iraq even more important.

The weeks until May 23 will be used by experts on both sides to draw up a concrete agenda for those talks, Ms. Ashton said.

A senior American official at the talks emphasized that this meeting was about testing Iran’s seriousness. “But dialogue is not sufficient for any sanction relief,” said the official, who, like others involved, spoke on the condition of anonymity as a matter of diplomatic practice. “There must be an urgent effort and concrete steps,” the official said, to restore confidence in Iran’s assertion that its program is not military.

“We believe there is a conducive atmosphere, but we need to test it,” and success in Baghdad is not at all guaranteed, the official added, repeating Mr. Obama’s warning that “the window for diplomacy is closing.”

A senior European diplomat at the talks said that “we’ve opened a box, and now we have to fill it.” The Iranians were serious and receptive, but in a sense, he said, “we’ve pushed the problem six weeks down the road,” and the six powers must work hard to shape the Baghdad agenda and decide what to do in response to possible Iranian actions. Although Iran said it would have new proposals, the diplomat said there were none, but rather a promise for a serious dialogue.

The leader of the Iranian delegation, Saeed Jalili, told reporters that there were important points of agreement as well as differences. He praised the “desire of the other side for dialogue and cooperation” and said that “we consider that as a positive sign,” compared with “the language of threats and pressure that do not work on the Iranian people.”

During the talks, Mr. Jalili held a 90-minute session with Ms. Ashton in which he argued that since Iran was cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency, sanctions should be lifted, but he was rebuffed, another European diplomat said.

Russia and China maintained a unified stance with the other four nations — the United States, Britain, France and Germany — and Russia was chosen to begin the discussion because of its relatively close ties to Iran. But after Mr. Jalili thanked Moscow for its support, the Russian delegate, Sergei Rybakov, said bluntly that “Russia doesn’t have to be thanked, but you need to do what we need you to do,” a senior European diplomat said.

The centerpiece for future talks, Ms. Ashton said, will be the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which permits peaceful nuclear energy but requires strict oversight and monitoring by the atomic agency, which has been rebuffed in its efforts to investigate possible evidence of Iranian efforts to make a nuclear bomb.

“We want now to move to a sustained process of serious dialogue, where we can take urgent practical steps to build confidence and lead on to compliance by Iran with all its international obligations,” Ms. Ashton said. “In our efforts to do so, we will be guided by the principle of the step-by-step approach and reciprocity.”

The agreement to hold another meeting is without question a success, given that a failure here would make the chances of a military strike on Iran more likely. But putting off any hard decisions until the next meeting will increase pressure on both sides to make progress there, especially on the question of Iran’s growing stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent purity, only a few steps from bomb grade.

That stockpile is the most urgent matter to settle, American officials have said. They want to get Iran to agree to stop enriching to 20 percent purity and to export its 20-percent stockpile, in order to buy more time for diplomacy and reassure Israel that Iran is not close to being able to make a nuclear weapon.

Mr. Jalili said Saturday that Iran needed 20 percent uranium for its medical reactor, on which 150,000 people depend. In previous meetings, the West has offered to supply Iran with the necessary fuel for the reactor.

Michael Adler, who works on the Iranian nuclear issue at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said that in Baghdad the six powers “are going to have to make clear their primary concerns, why they need to be answered, and lay out an effective timeline for moving forward.” In particular, he said, there is urgent concern over enrichment to 20 percent and expanding enrichment at the site in Fordo, Iran, “which is almost impregnable since it is under a mountain and which is fanning tensions,” while there is plenty of room for more centrifuges in a plant in Natanz.

Other issues are likely to include complete access for energy agency inspectors and acceptance by Iran of its obligation to give an early warning of its intention to build nuclear facilities.

Iran denies that its nuclear program has any military aim, but the members of the United Nations Security Council and the international energy agency, which is charged with inspecting nuclear programs, have expressed doubts.

Iran is under four sets of United Nations sanctions for refusing to stop uranium enrichment, which can be used both to make reactor fuel and the fissile core of nuclear warheads.

Iranian officials said they had rejected an American suggestion that the two sides hold a bilateral meeting, which would be the first since October 2009.

 

Steven J. Erlanger is an American journalist who has been the Paris bureau chief for The New York Times since 2008. Erlanger joined the Times in September 1987.

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