World powers held their first meeting in 14 months with Iran over its disputed nuclear programme on Monday, sounding out Tehran’s intentions after it claimed to have taken a new step in making fissile material.
Just a day ahead of the talks, Tehran raised the stakes by revealing that it had mined and produced its first home-grown batch of uranium yellowcake instead of seeking to import new supplies.
That triggered statements of concern in Washington and Europe ahead of the meeting in the Swiss city of Geneva between the European Union’s top diplomat, Catherine Ashton, and Iran’s chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili.
The talks, scheduled to last two days, began promptly Monday morning at the Swiss mission to the UN, with Ashton, Jalili and officials from Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States sitting around a table, the Swiss organisers said.
The meeting, a mirror image of the last attempt in October 2009 to temper Iran’s uranium enrichment drive, is taking place amid tougher international sanctions on Tehran and few hopes that a deal can be struck.
“We are expecting a serious response from the Iranians,” said a diplomat close to the world powers, noting however, that the agenda for the talks was not fixed and that this would among the first items to be broached.
“We do not know what is Iran’s state of mind,” added the diplomat.
Tehran maintains that it is seeking nuclear energy for peaceful purposes but Western countries have accused the Islamic republic of engaging in a covert programme to build nuclear weapons.
Before Sunday’s announcement by Iranian atomic chief Ali Akbar Salehi European sources hoped the meeting would help re-engage the Iranians even if it did not produce instant results.
But Iranian leaders, led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have reiterated in recent days that the country’s nuclear plans were non negotiable.
Salehi added a new dimension by revealing that Iran was now “self-sufficient” in the entire nuclear fuel cycle by being able to supply itself with the raw material for fuel, and would enter the talks with world powers “with strength and power.”
“Other countries cannot interfere in Iranian nuclear affairs,” said Ali Bagheri, the deputy negotiator, according to Iranian state television’s website.
“The result of this meeting depends on the attitudes of the other party,” he added.
In Washington, White House official Mike Hammer said the yellowcake step called into “further question Iran’s intentions and raises additional concerns at a time when Iran needs to address the concerns of the international community.”
Iran also accuses Western powers and Israel — the sole if undeclared nuclear weapons state in the Middle East — of being behind the recent assassination of a nuclear scientist and attempts to sabotage the nuclear programme.
In Bahrain, Gulf countries eyed the talks with scepticism. Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan openly criticised the West for excluding Iran’s neighbours from the dialogue.
“Any solution with Iran should come from the region, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries should have a role in these negotiations,” said the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The last talks in Geneva in October 2009 ended with cautious optimism following the first direct encounter between senior US and Iranian officials for 30 years.
But proposals for a deal on enriching Iran’s uranium outside the country for a research reactor in Tehran swiftly unravelled afterwards.
Since then, Iran has increased its stock of 3.5 percent enriched uranium, up from 1,580 kilogrammes in October 2009 to 3,183 kg now.