ISTANBUL, Turkey -- World powers began potentially crucial talks with Iran over its disputed nuclear program, even as Western officials appeared to rule out one much-discussed path to beginning negotiations.
Fourteen months after the last talks broke down in acrimony, representatives of six powers gathered for what is expected to be a one-day meeting on Saturday with Saeed Jalili, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator. Catherine Ashton, EU’s foreign policy chief and the organizer of the talks, met for dinner with Jalili Friday night to prepare the way for the group talks.
The six countries -– the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China –- are hoping to negotiate limits on Iran’s nuclear development program, which many powers fear is aimed at developing a bomb despite Iran’s denials. The so-called P5 Plus One nations want to see concrete signs that, after a series of false starts, Tehran is willing to disclose more about its half-hidden program and halt production of enriched uranium that could become fuel for a nuclear bomb.
Yet diplomats suggested that the European Union could not, as some outsiders have suggested, hold off implementation on July 1 of a scheduled embargo on purchases of Iranian oil as a reward for an agreement by the Islamic Republic to freeze its enrichment activities. The embargo, they said, is already law in Europe, and could only be dismantled over time, once Iran takes verifiable and substantial steps to roll back its program.
The comments underscore the complexity of the negotiations. While the Western nations are eager to find mutual opening concessions that could clear the way for detailed negotiations, they are under intense pressure not to give away too much, especially with the economic punishments that have been their point of greatest leverage.
A quick suspension of the sanctions could open President Obama to political attacks from conservative political foes, and could displease Israel, which is threatening to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities if the sanctions don’t halt what it views as a threat to its existence.
Another consideration is the difficulty of later reimposing the embargo once it has been lifted. It has taken a major political effort to win agreement on the embargo, including from financially distressed countries such as Greece and Spain, which have argued that dropping Iranian oil was a special hardship.
Yet the six powers need to make concessions that induce Iran to limit what it views as one of its most important national assets. And the sanctions plan, which has staggered Iran’s economy, is foremost on its leaders’ minds.
Iran may be planning on winning support for a suspension of sanctions from Russia and China, which are unhappy with the Western moves that limit the lucrative international energy trade. Iran may hope to create frictions between the Russians and Chinese on one side, and the French and British, who have pushed hard for the tough sanctions of recent months.
Even so, as the diplomats gathered, both Iranians and the six powers continued saying they saw hopeful signs. “I don’t think they’d be coming if they weren’t serious,” said a European diplomat.
Ali Ahkbar Salehi, Iran’s foreign minister, said in an opinion article in the Washington Post on Friday that Iran is committed to talks, but he also made clear his government’s grievances.
“Despite sanctions, threats of war, assassinations of several of our scientists and other forms of terrorism, we have chosen to remain committed to dialogue,” Salehi wrote.
The diplomats will be meeting in a building that is part of the city’s sleek conference complex. Each of the seven countries will have their own rooms, as will host Turkey, which is putting out word that it will serve as a middleman between the two sides if asked.
After the six countries meet as a group with Iran in the morning, they may have bilateral -- nation-to-nation -- meetings Saturday afternoon, possibly including a meeting between the United States and Iran. But diplomats said plans remained loose, dependent on desires of the Iranians that are hard to predict.
Jalili, the chief negotiator, is close to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khomenei, but is believed to have limited authority and expected to seek instruction for any major move. If the two sides succeed in finding common ground, they are expected to meet again next month in Baghdad –- a venue suggested by Iran –- for a second round that will go into more detail.
-- Paul Richter
Photo: Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, far left, and Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, far right, seen with diplomats from the two countries during a meeting in Istanbul on Friday. Credit: Burhan Ozbilici / Associated Press