ISTANBUL // As two-day nuclear talks between six world powers and Iran opened in a former Ottoman palace on the shores of the Bosphorus in Istanbul yesterday, western hopes that sanctions may have softened Tehran's position were dashed by defiant Iranian statements.
"It is possible that they will be more constructive," a western official said about the Iranians as the talks about Iran's nuclear programme began in the Ciragan Palace in Istanbul. There was no official word about what was going on behind the closed doors of the talks. Reporters were kept well away from the site of the negotiations, in a press centre about a kilometre from the palace.
Western powers, who suspect Iran wants to build a nuclear weapon, believe that their negotiation position has strengthened because of signs that the latest round of sanctions has made it more difficult for Tehran to push ahead with its nuclear programme and has hurt the Iranian economy.
Iran says it wants to develop nuclear facilities only for civilian purposes.
But as delegates wrapped up a first session of talks for lunch and - in the case of the Iranians - for Friday prayers, signs were that the Iranian approach in Istanbul was defiant.
Tehran's delegation said suspending uranium enrichment was out of the question. "We will absolutely not allow the talks to go into the issue of our basic rights like the issue of suspending enrichment," Abolfazl Zohrevand, an aide to Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, told reporters.
According to unconfirmed reports, the Iranians also said that serious negotiations would only be possible if sanctions were lifted, something that the West is not ready to contemplate without substantial concessions. "That would be bad news" if confirmed, the western official said. A news conference is tentatively scheduled for today, another official said.
The Istanbul conference was the first meeting of representatives of the so-called P5+1 group, made up of the five permanent members of the UN Security Coucil - China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States - plus Germany, with Mr Jalili since a meeting in Geneva late last year that came after an interruption in the talks that had lasted for more than a year.
Iranian state television quoted a statement by the Supreme National Security Council, which is also chaired by Mr Jalili, as saying that the first round of discussions in Istanbul ended in a "positive atmosphere" and that "both sides have agreed to continue talks based on agreements made" in Geneva.
Turkey said it was not invloved in the talks directly, but was ready to help if asked. "We just put them into a room and closed the door," a Turkish official said about the negotiation teams.
Even before delegates in Istanbul sat down, the issue of possible new sanctions against Iran entered the debate. On Thursday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton drew criticism from Russia with a statement saying that the US "may be proposing more unilateral sanctions". Sergej Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, said unilateral sanctions would spoil efforts to reach a deal with Iran. Mr Lavrov added the possible lifting of sanctions against Iran should be one of the subjects for discussions in Istanbul.
Speaking on the fringes of the talks, a western official denied there was a rift in the camp of the six powers negotiationg with the Iranians. "There are no differences with Russia and China" on the sanctions issue, he said. "It is too early to talk about a new wave of sanctions." That possibility would only come up if the Iranians blocked any progress to overcome the problem. "But this is not the spirit of the moment."