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US says nuclear talks more substantive than ever; Israel mum

Iran reportedly ready to reduce but not end enrichment, accept surprise inspections of facilities; sides to meet again in three weeks

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton, left, talks to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, right, during a photo opportunity prior to the start of two days of closed-door nuclear talks on Tuesday, October 15, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Fabrice Coffrini, pool)
EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton, left, talks to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, right, during a photo opportunity prior to the start of two days of closed-door nuclear talks on Tuesday, October 15, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Fabrice Coffrini, pool)

GENEVA — High-stakes nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers adjourned on an upbeat note Wednesday, with the European Union’s top diplomat calling them “very important.”

Iran’s foreign minister spoke of a possible “new phase” that would ease a decade of tensions over fears that his country wanted a nuclear bomb.

The statements were made at the end of two days of negotiations between Iran and the so-called P5+1, with the sides agreeing to reconvene in Geneva on November 7 and 8.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the talks contained a “level of seriousness and substance that we have not seen before.”

While cautioning not to expect a prompt breakthrough, Carney said the US “found the Iranian presentation very useful.”

The sides released a statement at the end of two days of talks calling the meetings “substantive and forward looking.”

Iran wants painful international sanctions to be lifted in exchange for possible concessions it had been previously unwilling to consider, such as increased international monitoring of its nuclear program and the scaling back of Iran’s uranium enrichment — a potential path to nuclear arms and the centerpiece of its impasse with the West.

Earlier in the day, Iranian deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi said Tehran would be open to surprise inspections of its nuclear sites,’ according to AFP, quoting the semi-official Iranian outlet IRNA.

Israeli media indicated that Iran was also willing to reduce the level to which it will enrich uranium.

While specific proposals were not made public Thursday, reports carried by Israeli TV indicated that Iran was proposing a six-month period of confidence-building gestures between the sides, followed by a six-month period in which agreed changes would be implemented in the Iranian nuclear program.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has urged the West to demand the complete dismantling of the Iranian “military nuclear” program, including an end to all uranium enrichment on Iranian territory, arguing that the capacity for even low-level enrichment would enable Iran to speed toward the bomb if and when it chose to do so. Jerusalem has also pushed for sanctions to remain in place.

The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment on the advancement of the diplomatic initiative.

Israel is reportedly concerned by the possibility of a gradual process being agreed, under which sanctions would be eased before the nuclear threat was effectively thwarted.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal earlier Wednesday, former IDF Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin and Israeli analyst Avner Golov wrote that a phased plan would give “cover to Iran’s nuclear program and place the decision-making power on the timing of nuclear-weapon breakout in the mullahs’ hands.”

Reactions to the diplomatic progress by European and Iranian diplomats were mostly positive.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who headed the Iranian side, said he hoped the results achieved over two days of talks ending Wednesday “will hopefully be the beginning of a new phase” in relations between Iran and the six powers — the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.

“We have reached a serious stage in the talks,” he told reporters.

“We sense that members of the (six powers) also have exhibited the necessary political will in order to move the process forward. Now we need to get to the details,” Zarif said, according to Reuters.

However, he added that Iran must be allowed to exercise its right to nuclear power, and said the West had come “some of the distance” toward reaching an agreement.

Iranian and Western “scientific and sanctions experts” will convene before the next meeting, “to address differences and to develop practical steps,” according to the joint statement.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, Moscow’s chief negotiator, describing the meeting as “better than many people thought, but worse than what we hoped for.”

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague welcomed what he called a “more positive approach” taken by the Iranians. “Diplomats have for the first time begun more substantive discussions with Iran on how to address the international community’s serious concerns about Iran’s nuclear program,” he said in a statement.

Iran will need to take the “necessary first steps,” Hague said, promising “proportionate steps in return. It is important that we maintain the positive momentum of the negotiations but we should not forget that Iran’s nuclear program is continuing to develop. There is a great deal of hard work ahead, but we must not waste this opportunity.”

London and Tehran said the two capitals would soon resume diplomatic ties, which have been cut off since 2011, AFP reported.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said the “start of serious, substantive talks has succeeded,” adding that it strengthened the hope for a diplomatic solution.

The talks, between the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany – the so-called P5+1 – and the Islamic Republic were held in a positive and “fruitful” atmosphere and showed promise to open a new page in relations between the West and the Islamic Republic, Iran said.

Zarif on Tuesday presented a proposal to end the current nuclear standoff, “which is being carefully considered” by the P5+1, “as an important contribution,” the joint statement said.

Iran says it’s not interested in having nuclear weapons. Its proposal Tuesday to the six powers — United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — focused on their demands that Iran’s uranium enrichment and other activities that could be used to make nuclear arms be stopped or reduced.

Western officials meeting with Iranian negotiators indicated interest in the Iranian proposal, and Araqchi called it a way for Iran to leave the “dark” path of international isolation.

Previous nuclear talks have often been fitful and sporadic, reflecting the deadlock between the two sides. Comments that Zarif posted on Facebook indicated that negotiations will resume strengthened expectations that some progress was being made.

Zarif said the six powers welcomed Iran’s “new approach,” and urged reciprocity, calling on the powers to also show a “new attitude.”

International talks designed to reduce fears that Iran may make nuclear weapons have been stalled for most of their 10-year history, with Tehran insisting it has no interest in weapons production. Still, it has resisted both enticements and sanctions from world powers designed to force it into ending uranium enrichment and other activities that could be used to make weapons.

But negotiations now appear to be driven by the new wind generated since reformist President Hassan Rouhani was elected in June.

Wednesday’s meeting started several hours late, as the six powers discussed further steps among themselves before the talks resumed for a closer look at Iran’s proposal.

Asked for details beyond broad outlines made public by the Iranians ahead of the two-day talks, a member of one of the delegations at the table said the plan offered reductions in both the levels of uranium enrichment being conducted by Iran and the number of centrifuges doing the enrichment — a key demand of the six powers.

An Iranian official said any plan would be implemented in three stages, lasting from six months to a year. Both men demanded anonymity because they were not allowed to discuss the confidential plan.

Iranian state TV, which closely reflects government views, said Tehran offered to discuss uranium enrichment levels. The report also said Iran proposed adopting the additional protocols of the U.N.’s nuclear treaty — effectively opening its nuclear facilities to wider inspection and monitoring — if the West recognizes Iran’s right to enrich uranium.

But the Iranian official said any acceptance of the protocols would be one of the last steps in implementing the plan.

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