* Iran suggests ready to curb sensitive uranium enrichment
* Hints could eventually allow wider U.N. inspections
* Next meeting in 3 weeks to flesh out proposal details
* Talks with Iran extraordinarily "straightforward" - U.S.
* Moderate Iran president opened door to serious talks
* Ten-year-long standoff has raised risk of Middle East war
By Louis Charbonneau and Yeganeh Torbati
GENEVA, Oct 16 Iran appears ready to scale back
activity of potential use in making nuclear bombs, suggesting it
is willing to compromise for a deal to win relief from harsh
economic sanctions, diplomats said on Wednesday, and follow-up
talks will be held on Nov. 7-8.
In a rare joint statement highlighting the dramatic shift
from confrontation to dialogue since a moderate Iranian
president took office in August, chief negotiators from Iran and
six world powers said Tehran's new proposal aimed at defusing
longstanding suspicions over the nature of its nuclear programme
was an "important contribution" now under careful consideration.
Details of Iran's proposals, presented during two days of
nuclear negotiations in Geneva with the powers, have not been
released, and Western officials were unsure whether Tehran was
prepared to go far enough to clinch a breakthrough deal.
In a clear sign of hope, however, European Union foreign
policy chief Catherine Ashton said it was agreed to hold the
next round of negotiations in three weeks in Geneva, and Iran's
chief negotiator praised this week's meetings as "fruitful".
Diplomatic paralysis and talk of war reigned during the
eight-year tenure of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a
bellicose hardliner. But the door to serious talks opened in
June with the landslide election of Hassan Rouhani on a platform
of conciliation to ease Iran's international isolation.
Iran and the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain
and Germany began negotiations in earnest on Tuesday to defuse
the increasingly volatile stand-off shadowing the Middle East.
The powers want the Islamic Republic to stop higher-grade
uranium enrichment to allay concerns that it would provide Iran
a quick path to bomb-grade nuclear fuel. Iran says it is
refining uranium only to generate more electricity for a rapidly
expanding population and to produce isotopes for medicine.
The joint statement, read out by Ashton, said Iran's foreign
minister "presented an outline of a plan as a proposed basis for
negotiation" and said the talks were "substantive and forward
looking," without elaborating.
Ashton, presiding over the talks on behalf of the powers,
told a closing news conference that the discussions were "the
most detailed we have ever had, by, I would say, a long way."
The two sides had agreed that nuclear and sanctions experts
would convene before the next high-level negotiations.
Iranian Foreign Minister and chief negotiator Mohammad Javad
Zarif said Tehran looked to a new era in diplomatic relations.
"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," he told reporters.
"DETAILED, STRAIGHTFORWARD TALKS"
A senior U.S. administration official enthused over the
substantive quality of the talks. "I've been doing this now for
about two years," the official said on condition of anonymity.
"And I have never had such intense, detailed, straightforward,
candid conversations with the Iranian delegation before."
The official added: "Although there remain many differences
in each area, and what sanctions relief might be appropriate,
specific and candid discussions took place."
After Tuesday's initial round, Iranian Deputy Foreign
Minister Abbas Araqchi suggested Tehran was prepared to address
long-standing calls for the U.N. nuclear watchdog to have wider
and more intrusive inspection powers.
He also told the official IRNA news agency that measures
related to its uranium enrichment were part of the Iranian
proposal, but hinted the Islamic Republic was not inclined to
make its concessions quickly.
"Neither of these issues are within the first step (of the
Iranian proposal) but form part of our last steps," he said
without elaborating, in comments reported on Wednesday.
The sequencing of any concessions by Iran and any sanctions
relief by the West could prove a stumbling block en route to a
landmark, verifiable deal. Western officials have repeatedly
said that Iran must suspend enriching uranium to 20 percent
fissile purity, their main worry, before sanctions are eased.
Britain said it hoped this week's talks would lead to
"concrete" results but that Iran must take the initiative.
"Iran will need to take the necessary first steps on its
programme and we are ready to take proportionate steps in
return," Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement.
Russia warned against undue optimism after the Oct. 15-16
talks. "The result is better than in Almaty (talks held in
April) but does not guarantee further progress," Sergey Ryabkov,
Russia's deputy foreign minister and Iran negotiator, told
Interfax. "There could have been better cooperation."
Israel, Iran's arch-foe, had urged the powers to be tough in
the talks by demanding a total shutdown of enrichment and ruling
out any early relaxation of sanctions. But it did not repeat
veiled threats to bomb Iran if it deems diplomacy pointless.
Western diplomats were hesitant to divulge specifics about
the negotiations due to sensitivities involved - both in Tehran,
where conservative hardliners are sceptical about striking deals
that could curtail the nuclear programme, and in Washington,
where hawks are reluctant to support swift sanctions relief.
But Iran, diplomats said, has made much more concrete
proposals than in the past, when ideological lectures and
obfuscations by Tehran were the norm, to the point that Iranian
negotiators were worried about details being aired in public
before they had had a chance to sell them back in Tehran.
Zarif said earlier in a post on Facebook that secrecy was
working in the negotiators' favour. "Normally, the less
negotiators leak news, the more it shows the seriousness of the
negotiations and the possibility of reaching an agreement."
Diplomats said other proposals Iranian envoys had made
regarding eventual "confidence-building" steps included halting
20 percent enrichment and possibly converting at least some of
existing 20 percent stockpiles - material that alarms the powers
as it is only a short technical step away from weapons-grade -
to uranium oxide suitable for processing into reactor fuel.
COMPLETE HALT TO ENRICHMENT OUT OF QUESTION
But Iran did not intend to renounce all enrichment itself
"under any circumstances", the Russian state news agency RIA
quoted an unidentified Iranian delegation source as saying.
He was dismissing the maximal demand of U.S. and Israeli
hawks which Western diplomats concede would undermine Rouhani's
authority at home by exposing him to accusations of a sell-out
from conservative hardliners in the clerical and security elite.
Most Iranians of whatever political persuasion equate the
quest for nuclear energy with national sovereignty,
modernisation and a standing equal to the Western world.
"Apart from suspending 20 percent enrichment, it is possible
to consider a scenario involving reducing the number of
centrifuges (enriching uranium)," RIA quoted the delegate as
saying. "However, for this, concrete steps from our opponents
are required, which we do not see yet."
Iran has sharply expanded its uranium enrichment capacity in
recent years and it now has roughly 19,000 installed such
machines. Of those, about 10,400 are currently enriching.
The fact that Iran has so many idle centrifuges potentially
allows it to swiftly expand enrichment, if it wanted, or to use
them as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the powers.
Rouhani's election in June turned Western pessimism into
guarded optimism that Iran might be ready to do a deal before
tensions escalated uncontrollably into armed conflict.
The sprawling Shi'ite state of 75 million people has become
anxious to be rid of Western-led sanctions that have impaired
its economy, slashed its critical oil export revenues by 60
percent and brought about a devaluation of its rial currency.
Iran has previously spurned Western demands that it shelve
20 percent enrichment as an initial step in return for modest
sanctions relief encompassing, for example, imported aircraft
parts. Instead, it has called for the most far-flung and painful
sanctions, targeting oil and banking sectors, to be rescinded.