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EU's Ashton to hold talks with Iran next week

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Iran will hold two days of talks with EU officials in Geneva next week, the first top-level nuclear discussions in 14 months, officials said on Tuesday.

Iranian workers stand in front of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, about 1,200 km (746 miles) south of Tehran October 26, 2010. REUTERS/Mehr News Agency/Majid Asgaripour

Iran’s nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili will sit down for negotiations with European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton on December 6-7, said an Ashton spokesman.

“We have now received a formal response from the Iranian authorities confirming that Dr Jalili has agreed to Catherine Ashton’s proposal to meet in Geneva,” the spokesman said.

“Talks between Ashton, on behalf of the E3+3, and Jalili will now take place on Monday and Tuesday of next week.”

Iranian television confirmed Tehran was ready for talks.

“The ground is ready for holding the talks on December 6,” television quoted Jalili’s office as saying in the letter.

Ashton has the backing of the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany -- often referred to as the E3+3 -- to hold talks with Iran. They will be the first high-level discussions with Iran since October 2009.

Representatives of the E3+3 powers are expected to attend.

The six powers are hoping the discussions will focus on Tehran’s disputed nuclear programme, but Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly said that uranium enrichment activity will not be up for negotiation.

Ashton has said all issues will be on the table, but has also indicated that she expects the conversation to focus on the nuclear programme, which the West believes is designed to develop nuclear weapons and Iran says is for peaceful purposes.

Western diplomats are not necessarily hoping for an immediate breakthrough with Iran, but say they will be encouraged if the conversation with Tehran can be sustained.

Pressure on Iran to return to negotiations has increased since June, when the United Nations imposed a fourth round of sanctions on the country, with the measures targeting the leadership as well as shipping and energy interests.

The United States and the European Union subsequently imposed even tighter sanctions, putting the squeeze on Iran’s gas and petroleum industries, restricting transfers of money and the supply of technology with suspected dual-use capabilities.

Iran has dismissed the sanctions, but there are indications that they are having an impact, including a substantial decline in the value of the Iranian rial this year.

Editing by Maria Golovnina