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More talks set for May, as EU and Iran deem Istanbul session a success

World powers looking for nuclear commitments from Tehran in Baghdad on May 23; Israel wary Iran playing for time

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (second from left) being escorted by technicians during a tour of Tehran's research reactor center in February. (photo credit: AP/Iranian President's Office)
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (second from left) being escorted by technicians during a tour of Tehran's research reactor center in February. (photo credit: AP/Iranian President's Office)

ISTANBUL — Iranian and European officials expressed confidence in the results of Saturday’s negotiations on Tehran’s disputed nuclear program as it was announced that the two sides will meet again in Baghdad on May 23.

The very fact that there will be another round adds to a growing sense among diplomats that the two sides were making notable progress in talks that have grown increasingly tense as the West has tightened sanctions on Iran and Israel has threatened a pre-emptive military strike on the Islamic republic.

But the challenges in the next round could be far more significant. That’s when the six powers will likely seek further commitments from Tehran to reduce concerns that it could use its uranium enrichment program to make the fissile core of nuclear missiles.

Israeli officials have expressed fears that Iran is playing for time in its diplomatic dealings, and had been hoping for substantive progress stemming from the Istanbul talks. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in February that the “moment of truth” on Iran was not weeks away, but also not years away. A postponement of the next diplomatic contacts for more than a month, as announced on Saturday, therefore, presumably does not sit well with Jerusalem’s sense of urgency.

Israeli officials have warned that Iran is manipulating the West. Uri Lubrani, a former Israeli ambassador to Tehran who now works as a senior adviser in the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, told The Times of Israel last week that the US has failed to internalize how to deal with the regime in Tehran and warned that Saturday’s talks were an Iranian trick.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton called Saturday’s talks in Istanbul constructive and said future talks will be guided by the “principle of a step-by-step approach and reciprocity.”

That indicates the international community is ready to reward Iran if it moves to alleviate fears that it intends to weaponize its nuclear program — rewards that could include delaying or easing some sanctions.

Iran’s chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili said his team “saw a positive approach (from the other side) and we consider it a step forward.”

Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful, and Ashton said Saturday that Tehran has a right to such a peaceful program. At the same time, she added, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty must be the “key basis” for future talks.

Iran asserts that it has not violated the treaty, and that it has a right under that agreement to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. Asked about the making the treat the basis of the talks, Jalili said, “We expect that we should enjoy our rights in parallel with our obligations.”

Iran is under four sets of UN sanctions for refusing to stop uranium enrichment — which can be used both to make reactor fuel and the fissile core of nuclear warheads — and the international community continues to demand that Tehran stop the activity.

But the last set of nuclear talks broke up without result more than 14 months ago after the Iranian team had refused to even discuss enrichment.

The six countries negotiating with Iran — the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — came to Saturday’s meeting with modest expectations.

Diplomats said before the meeting began that even general Iranian readiness to accept the need to discuss its enrichment program would be considered enough of a success to warrant a follow-up round.

Earlier Saturday, one of the diplomats, who like the others demanded anonymity because he was sharing confidential information, said the Iranians appeared to be moving toward that readiness, engaging in discussion about the peaceful use of nuclear energy and the nonproliferation treaty.

He said the Iran’s team had mentioned Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s “fatwa,” or edict, prohibiting nuclear weapons for Iran, in the course of the plenary discussions.

 

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