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World leaders take cautious approach in nuclear talks with Iran

April 14, 2012 |  3:52 am

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REPORTING FROM ISTANBUL, Turkey -- World powers began talks with Iran over its disputed nuclear program probing for a new willingness to negotiate, but not demanding any immediate concessions.

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 Saturday with Saeed Jalili, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator. Catherine Ashton, EU’s foreign policy chief and the organizer of the talks, met for a lengthy dinner with Jalili on 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 program, which many powers fear is aimed at developing a bomb despite Iran’s denial.  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 the enriched uranium that could become bomb fuel.

Yet Western diplomats say they will ask Jalili only to convince them Tehran is willing to negotiate, and won’t demand even modest concessions as a precondition to the next meeting, which may be in Baghdad next month.  Officials say they could begin discussing the details of a deal if Tehran wants to, but won’t push the Iranians yet.

A candid discussion of the program would be a change for the Iranians. At their last meeting, in January 2011, Iran insisted that all sanctions had to be lifted before it would even discuss the subject.

Western officials appear to have decided they want to ease into a lengthy negotiation, and don’t want to risk having it blow up because of tough demands in the opening rounds. The nuclear program has strong popular support in Iran, and the regime could lose face if it is seen to be backing down under international pressure.

Much is riding on the talks. Israel has vowed to bomb Iranian nuclear installations if the West’s sanctions strategy doesn’t persuade Tehran to give up the bomb. A military confrontation could jeopardize the global economic recovery and President Obama’s reelection chances.

In another sign of the complexity of the issue, Western diplomats suggested that it may not be possible to reach an initial, partial deal in which Iran freezes some of its enrichment while the European Union freezes an embargo on Iranian oil purchases. Such a deal has been widely discussed as an interim agreement that could open the way for a broader agreement.

But Western diplomats said it would not be possible to suspend the planned embargo until Iran has taken far bigger steps to unwind its nuclear program. They pointed out that the planned embargo is already written into law. And they said that it would be difficult to later reimpose an embargo if it had been temporarily frozen.

Despite the West’s clear reluctance to push the Iranians too hard, 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 the 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 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 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 archrivals, 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 find 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.

 

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-- Paul Richter

Photo: European Union Foreign Policy High Representative Catherine Ashton and Iran's chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, before their meeting in Istanbul, Turkey. Credit: Tolga Adanali / EPA

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