Iran nuclear talks enter final day, little to show

January 22, 2011

By Simon Cameron-Moore

(Reuters) – World powers enter a second and final day of talks with Iran on Saturday, having made scant progress toward persuading the Islamic Republic to curb its nuclear program on the first day of the meeting in Istanbul.

There was some relief that Iran was ready to continue, as diplomats expressed concern that talks could have collapsed on the first day as both sides dug in around old positions.

The West suspects that Iran plans to develop a nuclear weapon and negotiators went into the Istanbul meeting with low expectations for any breakthrough in the eight-year-old stand-off. Tehran says its atomic energy program is peaceful.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is the lead negotiator for the big powers — the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany.

“She seems to have had some success in trying narrow the gaps and the Iranians seem to be responding positively to her,” a Western diplomat said.

Iran’s nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili also met separately with heads of the Russian and Chinese delegations, but it was uncertain whether he would agree to meet Under-Secretary for Political Affairs Bill Burns, the head of the U.S. team.

“We are fully prepared to have a conversation with Iran, but whether it will happen remains to be seen,” U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in Washington.

Burns and Jalili met on the sidelines of an earlier round of talks in Geneva in 2009, but such contacts have been rarely confirmed by the Iranian side and usually have taken place behind the scenes since the fall of the U.S.-backed shah in Iran in 1979.

Early on during Friday’s sessions, an Iranian delegate said Iran refused to discuss any suspension of its uranium enrichment activities during the Istanbul talks.

Iran has ignored Security Council resolutions demanding it suspend enrichment, with trade and other benefits offered in return, and refused to grant unfettered access for U.N. nuclear inspectors.

Uranium enriched to a low degree yields fuel for electricity or, if refined to a very high level, the fissile core of a nuclear bomb.

Iran’s nuclear standoff with the West has escalated in the past year, with the United Nations imposing new sanctions and Western states rejecting a revised proposal for Iran to swap some of its fuel abroad as too little, too late.

Ashton outlined a possible revised offer for a nuclear fuel swap that would entail Iran handing over a large chunk of its stockpile of low enriched uranium (LEU). But no offer was made as Iran’s preconditions included a suspension of economic sanctions, a Western diplomat said.

The big powers are looking for some gesture from Iran that would demonstrate serious intent to engage and form the basis for a next round of talks.

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