Major powers open to serious talks with Iran

WASHINGTON/TEHRAN Fri Jan 20, 2012 4:17pm EST

An Iranian man walks on an Israeli flag while visiting a war exhibition held by Iran's revolutionary guard to mark the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), also known in Iran as the ''Holy Defence'', in southern Tehran, September 26, 2011. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl

An Iranian man walks on an Israeli flag while visiting a war exhibition held by Iran's revolutionary guard to mark the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), also known in Iran as the ''Holy Defence'', in southern Tehran, September 26, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Morteza Nikoubazl

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WASHINGTON/TEHRAN (Reuters) - Major powers signaled on Friday their willingness to reopen talks about curbing Iran's suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons but said Tehran must show it is serious about any negotiations.

The focus on diplomacy follows weeks of rising tensions between the West, which is seeking to cut Iran's oil sales, and Tehran, which has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz through which almost one-fifth of oil traded worldwide flows.

Alarmed Arab neighbors made a plea to avoid escalating the dispute over Iran's nuclear program while an ally of Iran's supreme leader called for Israel to be "punished" for allegedly killing an Iranian nuclear scientist.

The West suspects Iran is using its civilian nuclear program as a cover to develop atomic weapons and has pursued a two-track approach of sanctions and diplomacy to try to rein it in. Iran says its nuclear program is solely to produce electricity.

While major powers stressed their openness to renewed talks,

diplomats said they remain divided on their approach, notably on whether to let Iran keep enriching uranium at some level.

The group, known as the P5+1 and as the EU3+3, includes Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who represents the group, issued a statement making clear that a diplomatic path remains open to Iran despite tougher sanctions and fresh speculation of a military strike on its nuclear facilities.

"The EU3+3 has always been clear about the validity of the dual track approach," Ashton's spokesperson said in a statement that included her October 21 letter to the Iranians laying out the possibility of talks. "We are waiting for the Iranian reaction."

The release of the statement and letter appeared to reflect frustration at Iran's statements hinting at a willingness to resume talks but Tehran's failure to formally respond to the letter and commit to discussing the nuclear program in earnest.

CONCILIATORY TONE FROM CLINTON

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton struck a decidedly conciliatory tone at a news conference with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in Washington.

"We do not seek conflict. We strongly believe the people of Iran deserve a better future," she said. "They can have that future, the country can be reintegrated into the global community ... when their government definitively turns away from pursuing nuclear weapons.

"We have to see a seriousness and sincerity of purpose coming from them."

Westerwelle said, "One thing is clear: the door for serious dialogue remains open but the option of nuclear weapons in Iran is not acceptable."

Diplomats said major powers are divided over what incentives to offer Iran if talks were to resume.

A central issue is whether the group might ask Iran to cease enriching uranium to the higher level of 20 percent but allow it, at least for a time, to continue enriching at lower levels -

a stance partly at odds with the group's past positions.

Uranium enrichment is a process that at low levels can yield fuel for nuclear power plants or, if carried out to much higher levels of purity, can generate fissile material for bombs.

To let Iran enrich at lower levels would be something of a concession by the P5+1, although it has previously offered a temporary "freeze-for-freeze" in which Iran would not expand its nuclear program and the powers would not pursue more sanctions.

IRANIAN CALLS FOR PUNISHING ISRAEL

After Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei paid his respects to the families of two scientists assassinated on what Tehran believes were Israel's orders, one of them just last week, a close ally demanded retribution.

"Terrorism has a long history in some countries like the Zionist regime," Ali Larijani, speaker of Iran's parliament and a former nuclear negotiator, said Israel, which views an atomic bomb in Iran's hands as a threat to its survival.

"The Zionist regime should be punished in a way that it can not play such games with our country again."

Such threats have been made before in Tehran and it is unclear how or when they might be carried out. Israel, widely assumed to have the only nuclear arsenal in the Middle East, is on guard against attacks on its borders and within, notably by Lebanon's Hezbollah movement, which is supported by Iran.

Obama's top military official, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, briefly visited Israel and was quoted by its Defense Ministry as telling officials there that Washington was keen to coordinate on strategy.

"We have many interests in common in the region in this very dynamic time and the more we can continue to engage each other, the better off we'll all be," Dempsey was quoted as saying in a statement issued by the Israeli Defense Ministry.

The comments may reflect U.S. concerns about the possibility that Israel, which has previously bombed nuclear facilities in Iraq and in Syria, might launch an attack on Iran.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Friday that time was running out to avoid a military intervention and appealed to China and Russia, veto-wielding U.N. powers who have been reluctant to tighten sanctions, to support new sanctions.

"Time is running out. France will do everything to avoid a military intervention," Sarkozy told ambassadors gathered in Paris. "A military intervention will not solve the problem, but it will unleash war and chaos in the Middle East."

"We need stronger, more decisive sanctions that stop the purchase of Iranian oil and freezes the assets of the central bank, and those who don't want that will be responsible for the risks of a military conflict," Sarkozy warned.

"We really need you," he said in an appeal to Moscow and Beijing.

With tensions, including mutual threats of disrupting the oil trade, creating worries across the region, the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, the wealthy, U.S.-allied state sitting across the Gulf from Iran, offered a warm welcome to a call for calm on Thursday by his Iranian counterpart.

"It's important to get far away from any escalation and we stress the stability of the region," Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan was quoted as saying by state news agency WAM.

(Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Bill Trott)

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Comments (51)
fromthecenter wrote:
They are being totally backed into a corner, the sanctions are working this time. If they continue till the elections without any military engagements for them to use to unite their people a persian spring and end to all of this nonsense could be forthcoming. I hope Israel does nothing stupid to get the west into another needless war.

Jan 20, 2012 2:01am EST  --  Report as abuse
rdcress wrote:
Sanctions are not working and have never worked except to cause suffering to the people. The sanctioned regimes still receive their “aid” so the only suffering is by the people. There is one very simple solution to this whole issue. So simple in fact that it’s beyond me as to why it’s not implemented. All Obama has to do is issue a firm statement that he will ask (and I mean ASK!) Congress for a declaration of war should Iran block the straights. Not only would Iran sit up and take notice but the world would too. Unfortunately, the down side is that it would likely assure his re-election. A constitutionally declared war would do more to stabilize the world than all the sanctions the U.N. can come up with.

Jan 20, 2012 7:08am EST  --  Report as abuse
sure would like to know what that letter said. Iran needs a regime change and i think the whole region would be happy about it if the USA facilitated that change.

Jan 20, 2012 7:30am EST  --  Report as abuse
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