Iran and world powers agreed in talks in Istanbul to hold a more in-depth meeting in Baghdad next month where, Western nations warned Tehran, much must be done to ease fears that it is seeking nuclear arms.
EU High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton said there had been “constructive and useful” talks in Istanbul on Saturday with Iranian chief negotiator Saeed Jalili, but said that the meeting in Iraq on May 23 must “take us forward in a very concrete way.”
Echoing her, the US and other Western nations stressed the need for the next round of discussions to get to the core of the almost decade-old standoff over Tehran’s nuclear program.
The Istanbul talks involved the so-called P5+1 grouping — the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — and Iran, in the first such gathering for over a year, and after months of rising tensions.
The UN Security Council has imposed four rounds of sanctions on Iran due to suspicions that its avowed civilian nuclear program is a cover for a secret atomic weapons drive, a charge Iran vigorously denies.
The international community’s main concern, particularly for Iran’s arch foe Israel, is Tehran’s growing capacity to enrich uranium, which can be used for peaceful purposes, but also, when purified further, for a nuclear weapon.
The White House hailed the “positive attitude” from Iran and world powers on Saturday — but US Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes reiterated Washington’s call for Tehran to take “concrete steps.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague was also cautious, saying in a statement that the Istanbul talks “were a first step towards that objective, but there is still a long way to go.”
“We now need agreement on urgent, practical steps to build confidence around the world that Iran will implement its international obligations and does not intend to build a nuclear weapon,” he added.
France took a similar position.
“Iran has to make urgent and concrete gestures to establish confidence,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said in a statement issued in Paris.
Jalili praised the “desire of the other side for dialogue and cooperation. We consider that as a positive sign ... For the Iranian people, the language of threat and pressure doesn’t work.”
The last time Iran met with the P5+1 in Istanbul, in January last year, it quickly became apparent that the talks would go nowhere.
This time, however, diplomats said Tehran’s delegation had come with a much more constructive attitude.
“What was very striking as soon as Jalili started talking was that there was a difference in tone, in mood,” one envoy said, seeing in this a “clear sign that Iran ... wants to get into a serious process.”
Of special concern has been Iran’s formerly secret Fordo site in a mountain bunker near the holy city of Qom, which is enriching to 20 percent purity, but which experts say could be reconfigured to produce 90 percent weapons-grade material.
Fordo’s expansion — and a major UN atomic agency report in November last year on alleged “weaponization” efforts — have led to tighter EU and US sanctions on Iran’s oil sector, due to bite this summer, as well as talk of Israeli military strikes.
Whether a second round of talks would succeed remains to be seen, however. Iran is likely to insist on the right to a peaceful nuclear program while demanding sanctions be eased.