x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Iran’s approach has been positive, western officials say

The West suspects the Iranian programme could have military purposes, while Tehran insists its plans are entirely peaceful.

ISTANBUL // World powers and Iran made headway in talks about Tehran's nuclear programme at a meeting in Istanbul yesterday, according to western officials.

Officials of the so-called P5+1 group, made up of the UN's five veto-wielding powers - the United States, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom - as well as Germany, discussed with a high-level Iranian delegation concerns about Tehran's enrichment of nuclear material. The West suspects the Iranian programme could have military purposes, while Tehran insists its plans are entirely peaceful.

"Things are going quite well," Michael Mann, a spokesman of Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief who led the P5+1 delegation, told reporters on the fringes of the talks in a congress centre in downtown Istanbul. There was no comment from the Iranian delegation, which was led by Saeed Jalili, the country's chief nuclear negotiator since 2007.

"Inasmuch as last year's negotiations didn't go anywhere and this morning's negotiations were constructive, there is definitely progress," Mr Mann said. "The very fact that they're engaging and there was a constructive discussion this morning is progress compared to last year," he said about the Iranians.

Mr Mann said the initial meeting of the Istanbul talks, lasting about three hours, had been positive.

"Talks were in a constructive atmosphere, and that is an indication that it was a good morning," he said. "We are hoping to kick off a process here," he said.

After yesterday's discussions, Ms Ashton said future talks would be guided by the "principle of a step-by-step approach and reciprocity".

She said Iran had a right to a peaceful nuclear programme. At the same time, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty must be the "key basis" for future talks, she said.

Mr Mann had said he hoped that participants would "announce a second round of talks" at the end of the talks in Turkey. But there has been no decision yet, he said in response to a question about reports the next meeting would be in Baghdad.

Another western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that talks were taking place in a "good atmosphere, an open and constructive exchange of views".

The meeting was the first attempt to solve the row surrounding Iran's nuclear programme since a previous round of talks, also held in Istanbul, ended without agreement in January of last year.

Since then the West has strengthened sanctions against Iran, targeting Tehran's central bank and Iran's oil industry in particular.

According to Mr Mann, the P5+1 is sticking to proposals for confidence-building measures that were tabled in last year's meeting. He said the proposals included "extra transparency measures".

Western powers are particularly concerned about Iranian efforts to enrich uranium over a level of about five per cent, which is enough to produce electrical power. Iran has produced enough 20-per-cent-enriched uranium to fuel a medical research reactor in Tehran for at least five to 10 years, according to the Institute for Science and International Security, a US research group. Western governments say the 20-per-cent threshold is only a few technical steps away from a possible production of weapons-grade uranium.

The US president, Barack Obama, has said the talks were the "last chance" for diplomacy to find solutions to the nuclear dispute. Israel says it is considering military attacks against Iranian nuclear facilities to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

But given the level of distrust between the two sides, diplomats at the talks in Istanbul said one meeting would not be enough for a breakthrough. The most important factor was that the negotiation process be continued after the talks in Istanbul, because otherwise "we will have another source of tension in the region", already shaken by the bloody suppression of the opposition in Syria, one diplomat said.

Confidence-building, rather than discussions about details of nuclear technology, is the main theme in Istanbul.

Ms Ashton and Mr Jalili met over dinner on Friday night, an occasion intended to "develop a good working relationship", according to Mr Mann. "The atmosphere at dinner was very good, and it lasted for three hours, which nobody expected."

In the run-up to the Istanbul talks, western officials said they wanted to probe the sincerity of a statement by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has said his country would not seek nuclear weapons.

Speaking on Thursday after hosting foreign ministers from the Group of Eight leading industrialised nations, the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton urged Tehran to prove that its uranium-enrichment activity was for peaceful purposes.

"They assert that their programme is purely peaceful," Mrs Clinton said. "They point to a fatwa that the supreme leader has issued against the pursuit of nuclear weapons. We want them to demonstrate clearly in the actions they propose that they have truly abandoned any nuclear weapons ambition."

She was referring to a religious ruling issued by Ayatollah Khamenei stating that weapons of mass destruction violate Islamic law. A Turkish official said that fatwa was "an important one, a commitment".

 

tseibert@thenational.ae

With addtional reporting by the Associated Press