The first international talks with Iran on its nuclear program in 15 months produced a promise to reconvene in May amid calls for urgent diplomacy to avert military strikes.
The so-called P5+1 group of five permanent United Nations Security Council members -- the U.S., Britain, China, France, and Russia -- plus Germany will meet Iranian delegates in Baghdad on May 23 following “constructive” talks yesterday in Istanbul, according to Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief.
Tensions over Iran’s nuclear program have escalated since the parties’ last gathering in Turkey in January 2011, with Israel and the U.S. saying they may attack the Islamic Republic to prevent it from developing atomic weapons. That prospect and economic sanctions aimed at blocking Iran’s oil exports helped drive Brent crude prices 13 percent higher this year alone.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the timing of the new meeting, saying it gave Iran a “freebie” of five weeks “in which it can continue enrichment without any limitation, any inhibition,” according to a text message from his office in Jerusalem today.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the European Union should delay its July 1 ban on Iran’s oil imports to help the talks.
Delaying Oil Embargo?
“It would make a good deal of difference,” Ryabkov, Russia’s top delegate to the talks, said today by phone from Istanbul. “It would promote both a positive atmosphere and it would be conducive for further progress if the European Union decides to move in this direction.”
While yesterday’s talks didn’t yield any new promises, the P5+1 group hailed Iran’s willingness to engage in discussions on its nuclear program.
“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,” Ashton told reporters after the talks. “In our efforts to do so, we will be guided by the principle of the step-by-step approach and reciprocity.”
Iran’s nuclear envoy, Saeed Jalili, said “we witnessed progress” in yesterday’s talks. “We said before that pressure doesn’t work, we believe that cooperation is fruitful,” Jalili said. “Today we experienced that.”
An EU embargo on Iranian oil is scheduled to go into effect on July 1, following U.S. restrictions already in place.
“One of the issues that should be taken into consideration, and is the request of the Iranian people, is the removal of sanctions,” Jalili said, speaking to reporters through a translator.
A lifting of sanctions won’t be on the agenda until there are concrete moves to assure the international community about the intent of Iran’s nuclear program, a senior U.S. official said after yesterday’s talks. The meeting wasn’t about what may or may not happen militarily, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions were private.
Rejecting the contention of the U.S. and its allies that Iran may be developing the capability for nuclear weapons, Jalili spoke under a banner with images of assassinated Iranian atomic scientists that read, “Nuclear energy for all, nuclear weapons for none.”
Iran is enriching uranium to the 20 percent level at an underground facility at Fordo, near Qom. Civilian nuclear power plants require 5 percent low-enriched uranium. Iran says it is developing nuclear technology solely to generate power and for medical purposes.
Further stockpiling of 20 percent enriched uranium “poses a growing threat” that some will be diverted for weapons use, the Institute for Science and International Security, a research group in Washington, said in an April 10 report.
President Barack Obama said a month ago that although the window for diplomacy is “shrinking,” there is “still time and space” for diplomacy and sanctions before resorting to military action to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Yesterday’s scheduling of a May meeting is “a positive step forward,” Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser at the White House, told reporters in Cartagena, Colombia, where Obama was participating in a summit of Latin American leaders. “Now what we’re doing is building out the agenda going forward.”
Iranian and P5+1 deputies will work on drafting a framework for proposals to be taken up at the Baghdad gathering, Ashton said. That will enable the negotiators to take “concrete steps” in resolving concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, she said.
Both sides reiterated that while Iran has a right to civilian nuclear technology, it needs to meet its obligations as a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The treaty will be a “key basis” of the parties’ engagement going forward, Ashton and Jalili said.
“We are seeing a more serious approach now because international pressure on Iran is at an all-time high and both sides are coming to the talks with more pragmatic proposals,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington, said yesterday in an e-mail. “The further high-level and technical talks announced today are the logical next step to reach agreement on specific, concrete steps that can help prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.”