BAGHDAD -- Officials of six world powers and Iran gathered today in a hopeful but subdued atmosphere for one or two days of talks on Iran's disputed nuclear program.
The six world powers opened the meeting at an imposing guest house in Baghdad's international zone at midday with a group session led by Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief. The group is expected to outline a proposed interim deal under which Iran would halt production of 20% enriched uranium, which can be purified relatively easily to material that can be used in a nuclear bomb. It would also surrender control of all of the material and dismantle an underground bunker where it is being refined.
In return, the other nations would hold off on further sanctions against Iran and would provide several incentives, including help with Iran's civilian nuclear program.
[Updated, 3:50 a.m. May 23: Michael Mann, a spokesman for Ashton, emerged from the meeting later to announce: "We've put a new offer on the table. ... We're hoping Iran will react in a good way."
He declined to provide details but said he didn't expect "dramatic happenings."
A Western official said the proposal would "include confidence-building measures that can begin to pave the way for Iran to demonstrate that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes and for it to comply with [U.N. Security Council] resolutions."
It is unclear whether Iranian and American officials will have bilateral discussions. U.S. officials say they are open to direct discussions if they could be productive, but say the same business might be transacted in a group setting.]
[Updated, 5:47 a.m. May 23: After a three-hour opening session, the group adjourned for lunch. Press TV, a news organization controlled by the Iranian government, quoted unidentified sources as saying that the talks would continue Thursday.]
Representatives of the six powers -- the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China -- don't expect a deal at this gathering but want Iran to signal that it would make concessions in a comprehensive negotiation.
White House officials have expressed optimism about the talks, but some of the diplomats involved in the discussions are making no predictions.
[Updated, 6:20 a.m. May 23: As the talks got underway, there was a sign that the unity of the six powers on the issue might be weakening.
Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, attacked U.S. lawmakers for adding new sanctions on Iran this week, and said American leaders should be removing them.
"As Iran takes a step toward the global community, the world community should take steps for weaker sanctions against Iran," Lavrov said at a news conference in Moscow on Wednesday, according to the RIA Novosti news agency.
Western diplomats have said that Russia and China are firmly behind their latest proposal to Iran, which calls for giving no ground on sanctions.]
-- Paul Richter
Photo: EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton at a NATO summit in Chicago on Monday. Credit: Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty Images