x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Tehran agrees to further nuclear talks

Iran agrees to further discussions over measures aimed at persuading the world it is not building nuclear weapons.

GENEVA // Landmark talks over Iran's nuclear ambitions ended in success yesterday, with Tehran agreeing to further discussions over measures aimed at persuading the world it is not building a nuclear weapon. Following day-long talks at an 18th-century villa in the countryside outside Geneva, Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, said diplomats from Iran, the United States and five other major world powers would hold a second meeting focusing on nuclear issues "before the end of October".

Mr Solana, who hosted the talks, also said Iran would co-operate "fully and immediately" with the International Atomic Energy Agency on visiting a recently disclosed second uranium enrichment facility, near the holy city of Qom. Yesterday's talks, which included a face-to-face private meeting between the US negotiator William Burns and his Iranian counterpart Saeed Jalili, represented "what we hope will be the start of an intensive process," Mr Solana said during a news conference at a Geneva hotel.

Whether such a process results in assuring the international community of Iran's intentions remains uncertain, but speaking at UN headquarters in New York, Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, called the atmosphere at the meeting "constructive". The apparent civility between the two main players yesterday contrasted sharply with a similar meeting in Geneva in July 2008, when Mr Burns reportedly left the room at one point to avoid having to shake hands with Mr Jalili.

The United States severed diplomatic relations with Iran in 1980 after Iranian students and militants, in the wake of the overthrow of the US backed shah of Iran, seized the US Embassy in Tehran and took 53 Americans hostage. Yesterday's negotiations were the first high-level, direct talks between Tehran and Washington in three decades. They had been scheduled for months, but assumed new urgency when Iran disclosed to the IAEA last week that it was constructing the nuclear facility near Qom.

The information was passed on to Washington and a firestorm of criticism and threats of tougher, multilateral sanctions ensued, led by US President Barack Obama, Mr Solana suggested that the events of the past week had made an impression in Tehran. The Iranian delegation "came knowing it was a different" meeting, he said. As a measure of progress, the EU's foreign policy chief appeared particularly pleased that Iran had agreed to send some low-grade uranium abroad for further enrichment.

The cautiously positive mood in Geneva was not mirrored in Tehran, where earlier in the day there was little optimism about the outcome of talks and considerable doubt about the motives of the negotiators sitting across the table from Mr Jalili. "It is not unreasonable that the international community expects Iran to prove that its nuclear programme is peaceful in nature," said Naser, a middle-aged shop owner. "The problem is that that's not the only thing the big powers want, so I don't think the talks in Geneva will make any difference."

In advance of Thursday's negotiations, both the US and Iran softened their rhetoric and made fresh overtures. Only days after Iran conducted tests of missiles it said had a range of 1,200 miles, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told reporters in Tehran that he would consider buying enriched uranium from third countries to fuel Iran's nuclear facilities. "Our nuclear scientists are ready to negotiate with countries willing to sell us enriched uranium," Mr Ahmadinejad told reporters in Tehran, according to state-run Iranian news agencies. He also said he would meet face-to-face with Mr Obama and other world leaders to discuss the nuclear question and other security and economic issues.

Furthermore, Mr Mottaki, the foreign minister, visited Washington on Wednesday and discussed Iran's nuclear programme with two members of the US Congress. It was the first visit by a senior Iranian official to the US capital in a decade. The White House approved the visit. After days of tough talk about sanctions, Washington's tone moderated, too. State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said that if Iran was willing to address questions about its nuclear programme, then there likely will be subsequent meetings. The litmus test for judging the success of Thursday's talks was "the willingness of Iran to engage on these issues," he added.

The Obama administration also responded favourably to the idea of bilateral talks, saying they were possible if yesterday's talks showed any sign of progress. Such face-to-face meetings have been long sought by Tehran, which believes its political and historical stature in the Middle East warrants such treatment. There was no immediate comment on yesterday's developments from the UAE, which has deep and long-standing economic, trade and cultural ties with Iran.

The nation's foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, expressed optimism last week that Iran would provide "positive co-operation" for the inspection of the site. According to US officials, GCC countries have privately expressed concerns that the United States and other major powers might jeopardise their security for the sake of deal with Tehran. Last week, Mr Ahmadinejad cautioned what he termed "the little states of the Persian Gulf" against turning to outside powers for protection.

From Israel, which is widely believed to possess the region's only nuclear weapons, there also was no immediate comment. Earlier on Thursday, however, the vice prime minister dismissed the meeting as futile, saying Tehran would never give up its alleged bid to acquire nuclear weapons and calling for "real" sanctions on Tehran. "This is a waste of time," said Silvan Shalom, Israel's vice prime minister. "The Iranians will never abandon their plan to become a nuclear power." The only alternative to war, he added, was not sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council but by the United States, the European Union, Japan and Australia.

In Iran, there were reminders that the right to develop a peaceful nuclear programme now rests unshakeably at the heart of the nation's identity. "Iran's quest for having domestic nuclear technology did not start with Ahmadinejad and will not end with him. There may be other important issues, like the election row, but that doesn't diminish the importance of the nuclear issue," said a supporter of former president Mohammad Khatami and defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who asked not to be named.

cnelson@thenational.ae msinaee@thenational.ae With additional reporting by James Reinl in New York.