ASTANA (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday said the United States welcomed Iran’s decision to join talks in Geneva, which she said should focus “first and foremost” on Tehran’s nuclear program.
“We are encouraged that Iran has agreed to meet in Geneva next week,” Clinton said in the Kazakh capital of Astana.
“This is an opportunity for Iran to come to the table and discuss the matters that are of concern to the international community: first and foremost their nuclear program,” she said.
European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton is set to sit down with Iran’s nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili in Geneva on December 6-7 for the first high-level discussions with Tehran since October 2009.
Ashton has the backing of the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, the global powers leading efforts to ensure Iran does not develop nuclear weapons.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said uranium enrichment activity will not be up for negotiation, raising doubts about Iran’s willingness to discuss a disputed nuclear program it says is purely for peaceful purposes.
Clinton left no doubt that the United States planned to bring the nuclear issue to the table, saying Tehran should be prepared to join the discussions “in the spirit that they are offered.”
“The international community has been very clear. Iran is entitled to the use of civil nuclear power for peaceful purposes. It is not, however, entitled to a nuclear weapons program,” Clinton said.
“The purpose of the negotiations will be to underscore the concern of the entire international community in Iran’s actions and intentions.”
Clinton said the big powers remained willing to discuss a proposal to provide fuel for a Tehran research reactor, which Tehran at first agreed to last year as a confidence-building measure but later backed away from.
That proposal “will certainly be discussed, but would have to be modified” to take into account Iran’s increased stockpiles of uranium since the first deal fell apart late last year, Clinton said.
“We want to see Iran take a position as a responsible member of the international community, but in order to do that it must cease violating international obligations, cease any efforts it is making and has made in the past toward achieving nuclear weapons,” Clinton said.
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.
Reporting by Andrew Quinn, writing by Guy Faulconbridge, editing by Steve Gutterman