Thursday, October 1, 2009

Iran Nuclear Talks Begin in Geneva

GENEVA -- As world powers began a key meeting with Iran Thursday aimed at reining in the country's nuclear-fuel program, all eyes are on whether Tehran will agree to discuss limitations on a program it insists is for civilian use.

The meeting at a villa on Lake Geneva in Switzerland marks the first time the U.S. has taken part in such talks as a full participant, and comes just days after the revelation that Iran has been developing a second uranium-enrichment plant in secret, further cementing the belief in Western capitals that Iran wants the technology to develop nuclear weapons.

U.S. Under-secretary of State William Burns sat alongside EU foreign affairs chief Javier Solana at the opening of the talks in Geneva.
The morning session of the meeting consisted of a restatement of positions by both sides, according to a Western diplomat familiar with the talks. The diplomat said the Europeans present re-proposed their offer for staged talks, while stressing that the revelation of a new secret site had made a solution to the diplomatic impasse urgent.

Iran reiterated the broad range of issues it wants to discuss, touching on the nuclear question only toward the end. "The key session will be this afternoon," the diplomat said.

The United Nations Security Council members and Germany -- known as the P5+1-- believe the exposure of the second enrichment site has given them new leverage to persuade Iran to agree to a "freeze-for-freeze" proposal. Under the proposal, Iran would stop expanding its fuel program in exchange for a halt to new U.N. sanctions. That temporary pause would set the stage for more wide-ranging talks, offering Iran trade and economic benefits in exchange for a permanent solution, such as suspension of its nuclear fuel program.

The U.S., Russia, China, France, U.K. and Germany also hope to get Iranian assurances Thursday that it will open itself up fully and quickly to international inspectors, particularly at the newly exposed site at Qom.

Thursday's meeting is a key test of whether Iran is willing to engage on these issues, or whether the P5+1 will have to move away from diplomacy toward sanctions, diplomats familiar with the talks said.

Mohamed ElBaradei, who heads the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Wednesday in comments to television that Iran was "on the wrong side of the law" in maintaining that it had had no obligation to tell the agency about the site at Qom until it was ready to introduce nuclear material there. Mr. ElBaradei's comments were taken as significant, given his relatively soft approach to pressuring Iran in the past.

While Thursday's meeting isn't expected to address the issue of new sanctions, European members of the P5+1 are pushing for quick action if Iran fails to persuade the group that it is willing to engage to find a solution to concerns over its fuel program. The facilities Iran is developing can enrich uranium to weapons grade or to be used in civilian power plants.

U.S., Iran Make Offers on Nuclear Talks
IAEA Awaits Word on Iran Inspections
Speaking to Echo Moskvy radio in Moscow Thursday morning, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said: "I am not a fanatic supporter of sanctions against people. Sometimes, yes, they are useful, but we are not yet talking about sanctions. In Geneva, we won't be talking about sanctions."

At the same time, Mr. Kouchner said he wasn't overly concerned by the hard line his Russian opposite, Sergei Lavrov, has taken against further U.N. sanctions. He said it wouldn't be the first time Mr. Lavrov had opposed sanctions only to be overruled by President Dmitry Medvedev. He also noted that the Security Council, where Russia and China have a veto, has already passed three resolutions against Iran that include sanctions.

In recent months, Europe -- and France in particular -- has traded roles with the U.S., taking a tougher and more vocal approach to pressuring Iran while the U.S. has used more cautious language. However, European leaders have signed on to the U.S. timetable requiring Iran to show it is willing to engage seriously on the nuclear issue by the end of the year.

"If Iran does not respond to the demands of the International Atomic Energy
Agency by December, the international community must decide on sanctions," French Defense Minister Herve Morin told Le Figaro newspaper in an interview Thursday.

Thursday's meeting is at the level of political directors, rather than foreign ministers. The EU's foreign policy representative, Javier Solana, who has acted as point man for the P5+1 in negotiations with Iran, opened the talks, which are expected to last all day.

A senior U.S. official said Wednesday that the U.S. would be open to a one-on-one meeting with Iran during the talks, marking the administration's effort to engage Iran. Negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program have been going on since 2003, but have achieved little in the face of Iran's tough line maintaining its right to develop the technology and insistence to date that its program is for civilian use only.

Under the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran is a signatory, countries do have the right to enrich uranium. However, the confirmation in 2003 that Tehran had been developing uranium-enrichment technologies in secret for as long as 18 years triggered deep mistrust in Western capitals over the purpose of the program.

Talks have gained urgency over the past year amid rising concerns that Iran already has enough nuclear material for a bomb, if it chooses to enrich the material further.

Russia and the EU have offered repeatedly to provide Iran with fuel for civilian reactors, something Iran indicated this week it may be open to.