Iran agrees to talks with world powers
Under pressure from international sanctions, Iran has agreed to restart diplomatic talks on its nuclear program next month, the European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, announced in Brussels on Friday.
The talks, which would include senior diplomats from the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, would be the first in more than a year and the first since world powers imposed new sanctions, which have started to weigh on the Iranian economy. A diplomat involved in the discussions said it was significant that Iran responded just days after the European Union published sweeping new regulations that, among other steps, bar investments in Iran's oil and gas industry.
Ashton, who had previously proposed three days of talks in Vienna starting on Nov. 15, said she had received a letter from Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, in which he agreed to meet "in a place and on a date convenient to both sides" after Nov. 10.
"I think this is a very significant move," she told reporters.
The last round of talks, in October 2009, were held in Geneva, and Iran has indicated that it would like to return to the Swiss city for this round as well. While the last meeting lasted just one day, Ashton has pushed for three days in order to delve more deeply into the issues dividing the two sides. She has also proposed the meeting start with an informal dinner in order foster a more cooperative atmosphere in the working meetings.
The diplomat involved in the talks said that Iranian diplomats in recent weeks have quizzed Turkish, Chinese and Russian diplomats about Ashton, who is new in her post, and have apparently concluded that they can do business with her. She replaced long-time diplomat Javier Solana last year, and this would be her first meeting with Iran.
World powers have offered Iran a package of incentives if it halts its enrichment of uranium, but Tehran has steadfastly refused to discuss its nuclear program. Last year's talks largely centered on a U.S.-French-Russian proposal to assist Iran with refueling an aging reactor used for medical purposes. The accord was intended to build confidence -- it would have resulted in a large stash of Iran's enriched uranium leaving the country -- but it was ultimately rejected by Iran's leaders.
With Iran having added to its stockpile of low-enriched uranium since then, and also enriching uranium at an even higher level, the United States and its allies have been crafting a new proposal that would require the Islamic Republic to give up even more enriched uranium in order to receive assistance. Iran, in its official statements, has given no indication such a deal would be acceptable -- and has insisted that its focus in the talks would be on broader international issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than its nuclear program.
Indeed, a copy of the letter from Jalili's office, seen by The Washington Post, simply refers to "the talks" and makes no mention of the subject, whereas Ashton's letters to Jalili have always emphasized the main focus would be the nuclear program.
| October 29, 2010; 11:55 AM ET
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