Iran Nuclear Talks Show Progress Without Pledges, EU Says

Iran Nuclear Talks Hit Obstacles as Sandstorm Cloaks Baghdad
The Iraqi capital was cloaked by a sandstorm, forcing Iraqi soldiers to wear surgical masks outside checkpoints in the heavily fortified area of the meeting. Photographer: Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

World powers and Iran unexpectedly reconvened a meeting on the second day of talks in Baghdad after negotiators said progress was made without binding pledges to ensure the Persian Gulf nation’s nuclear work is peaceful.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and Iran’s top negotiator Saeed Jalili delayed a scheduled press conference to reconvene a meeting of all seven countries at the talks, her spokesman, Michael Mann, told reporters. The sides may meet again in Geneva in three weeks, Iran’s state-run Mehr news agency said without citing anyone.

“There is progress, there is an atmosphere of optimism after the Western powers responded to our requests,” Taleb Mahdi, a member of Iran’s delegation, said in an interview.

Chinese, French, German, Russian, British and U.S. negotiators -- the so-called P5+1 group -- have been meeting with Iran since yesterday to try to overcome disagreements over how to ensure the Islamic republic’s atomic work is peaceful and forestall possible military strikes.

A Western official told reporters that Jalili met with delegates from Russia and China before it was decided to resume negotiations.

Iran and the P5+1 yesterday had the most detailed discussions since the latest round of negotiations began in February, according to a senior U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the talks’ sensitivity. While many differences remained, some discord was expected and didn’t derail the negotiation process, the official said.

Military Threat

“If there wasn’t progress, we wouldn’t still be holding the talks,” Mann told reporters in the Iraqi capital. “Progress has been made.”

The meeting was held in a bid to prevent possible military strikes against Iran, a prospect Israel hasn’t ruled out. While the Islamic republic, the target of a probe by the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency since 2003, denies it wants to make nuclear weapons, it has refused to fully cooperate with inspectors and has been hit with international sanctions.

“There’s been no progress in this round of talks,” Mahdi said in an interview in Baghdad today before Mann spoke to journalists. The P5+1 offer calls on Iran to end all uranium enrichment, Mahdi said.

UN Security Council resolutions oblige Iran to suspend its uranium-enrichment program until inspectors verify that its work is peaceful.

‘Challenging, Sensitive’

Iraqi State Minister Ali al-Dabbagh said that while negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 are “challenging and sensitive, it can’t be said that they aren’t promising,” the Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

The P5+1 is pressing Iran to immediately halt production of uranium enriched to 20 percent, according to U.S. and European diplomats at the talks. Uranium enriched to that purity brings Iran closer to the 90 percent level used in most atomic weapons.

Iran may be willing to suspend production of higher-enriched material provided it receives guarantees that it can keep enriching to lower levels, Hossein Mousavian, Iran’s former spokesman for nuclear negotiations, wrote in yesterday’s Financial Times. He cited current Iranian officials.

The Baghdad talks broke up just before midnight yesterday, a day after IAEA inspectors bridged an impasse with Iranian authorities over wider access to suspected atomic sites, including the Parchin military complex. IAEA chief Yukiya Amano said he expected the accord to be signed “quite soon.”

Concrete Steps

Negotiators held detailed discussions on concrete steps yesterday, according to a senior U.S. official who briefed reporters afterward and characterized the meetings as the beginning of a process rather than the end. Sanctions are putting pressure on Iran, part of a dual-track policy that also includes engagement, the official said, adding that the U.S. is prepared to impose additional sanctions if necessary.

“It could take some time before we see that there is really an agreement,” Olli Heinonen, the IAEA’s former chief Iran inspector and now a visiting professor at Harvard University, said on Bloomberg Television’s “Last Word” yesterday. “We have an ample amount of time, at least until the end of this year, to solve this problem.”

‘Sacred Goal’

The Persian Gulf nation, which the IAEA said tripled its output of higher-enriched uranium in February, could build an atomic weapon in months if its leadership chose to do so, Heinonen said. The IAEA is expected to issue its quarterly report on Iranian uranium production this week.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad yesterday reiterated Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s decree that nuclear weapons are forbidden under the Islamic republic’s laws.

“Iran believes the annihilation of all weapons of mass destruction is a sacred goal and that the security and health of humans depend on it,” state-run Press TV cited Ahmadinejad as saying.

Iran’s state-run Fars news agency reported today that the possible removal of sanctions had been discussed during the talks. Fars didn’t say where it got the information.

Before the Baghdad meeting, U.S. and EU diplomats ruled out suspending any of the dozens of financial, trade, insurance and energy-related sanctions imposed on Iran since November. The governments said they were willing to offer limited confidence-building measures such as nuclear-safety assistance, research-reactor fuel, airplane parts and help fighting drug smugglers in return for concessions.

The announcement that Iran, the second-biggest producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, had agreed to wider UN inspections helped send oil prices lower this week.

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