Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili
Photo: AFP
EU's Javier Solana
Photo: Reuters

US, Iran face off at 6-power nuclear talks

High-stakes talks between Iran, six world powers begin, with senior US official saying Washington is open to possibility of one-on-one talks with Iranian diplomats

Six world powers met with Iran in Switzerland on Thursday for talks US officials said would need to convince them Tehran was prepared to show it was not hiding plans for a nuclear bomb.


Underlining they would not threaten fresh sanctions against Tehran but had prepared them in case the talks made no progress, Washington also said there could be an opportunity for a rare bilateral meeting with the Iranians.


"This can't be a phony process," a senior US official said in Washington. "It can't be a process where they go through the motions."


US diplomats sat alongside those from Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China for the talks on how to end the long-running standoff over Iran's nuclear program, which Tehran says is designed purely for generating electricity.


EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana spoke first, followed by Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns, head of the US delegation, an official at the talks said.


Diplomats said the biggest question was whether the Iranian negotiator would be willing to talk about Iran's nuclear program and a second enrichment facility at Qom, which the United States, Britain and France revealed last week.


Iran has defied five UN Security Council resolutions demanding it suspend all sensitive nuclear activities and says its nuclear program is not up for discussion. It wants to focus instead on regional security issues, such as Afghanistan.


'The engagement track'

In Washington, senior Obama administration officials said the United States will not threaten Iran with fresh sanctions at the one-day talks in Geneva. "This is the engagement track tomorrow, not the pressure track," one senior official said.


But the official said the United States has been preparing "a range of areas" in which to pursue sanctions against Iran if Tehran ignores Western entreaties about its nuclear program.


The officials would not discuss specifics of the sanctions, which experts believe could be targeted at the energy sector. They said there had been active consultations among allies and that sanctions could be applied through the UN Security Council or coordinated among individuals countries.


"You're in a much better position to prepare the ground on the pressure track if you have demonstrated unmistakably that you're doing everything you can on the engagement side," one official said.


French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner confirmed to a Moscow radio station that sanctions would not come up in Geneva.


The meeting at the elegant villa made available by the Swiss for decades to bring foes together was the first time a US official was a "full participant" in a meeting of the major powers with Iran.


US officials said Burns was not actively seeking a one-on-one meeting with Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, but would not reject one if the opportunity arose.


An official at the talks said an informal lunch would be an opportunity for bilateral meetings, followed by a second plenary session expected to run until 6 or 7 pm (1600/1700 GMT).


The US approach contrasts sharply with a similar meeting in Geneva in 2008, when Burns left the room to avoid having to shake hands with Jalili, according to diplomats at those talks.


A Burns-Jalili meeting would be the highest level US-Iran talks in nearly 30 years. Washington severed relations with Tehran in 1980 during a hostage crisis in the wake of Iran's Islamic Revolution.


The administration of former President George W. Bush reluctantly began to take part in multilateral talks with Iran towards the end of his presidency. President Barack Obama, Bush's successor, has said he wants to improve US-Iranian ties but Tehran has reacted coolly to his overtures.


פרסום ראשון: 10.01.09, 11:31
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