ISTANBUL -- After more than 15 hours of expert-level talks, the United States and other major world powers agreed with Iran early Wednesday to move toward resumption of full negotiations to ensure that Iran’s nuclear fuel enrichment does not turn into a nuclear weapons program, a European participant at the talks said.
The meeting, in Istanbul’s upscale Conrad hotel, began Tuesday amid doubts that talks would resume after they stalled last month.
But as of early Wednesday, the participants reached agreement to implement the “Moscow plan,” a process that would start with a mid-level meeting between senior European Union official, Helga Schmidt, and her Iranian counterpart, Ali Bagheri.
The outcome of those talks would determine whether full-scale negotiations will follow, a European diplomat attending the talks told McClatchy. The diplomat spoke anonymously because the discussions are ongoing.
Shortly after 1 a.m., the Iranian delegation left the talks without commenting. But one member, as he departed the hotel, told a reporter, “We are smiling, and that says it all.”
The Iran talks hold the key to war and peace in the Gulf, and well beyond.
Israel has threatened a military strike if Iran does not cease enriching uranium to 20 percent -- a degree that, while far short of weapons grade, would allow it to produce nuclear weapons in a matter of a year or more.
But with top Israeli military and intelligence figures and senior U.S. national security officials warning publicly that an Israeli airstrike would only delay the Iranian program for a few years at most, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu agreed to give President Barack Obama a chance to seek a diplomatic solution first.
Political talks were launched here in April and were moved to Baghdad in late mid-May, but stalled in the third round in Moscow in mid-June.
On Sunday, the European Community and the United States introduced a new round of tough unilateral sanctions, which include a cutoff of European oil purchases and U.S. actions against the Iran central bank. In response, Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, chokepoint for oil and gas shipments from the Persian Gulf to the rest of world.
On Tuesday, Iran successfully tested mid-range missiles that are capable of striking Israel, and the New York Times reported that the United States had sent new minesweepers into the Gulf and deployed F22 Stealth and F15C warplanes to the Gulf.
Iran denies any intention of developing nuclear weapons, and the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has issued a fatwa saying it was impermissible to divert nuclear material to bomb-making.
Heading the first three rounds of political negotiations were Catherine Ashton, the EU’s top foreign affairs official, and Saeed Jalili, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator. Ashton represents the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia, while Jalili is empowered as personal representative of Iran’s supreme leader.
The major powers, during the first hours of the talks, gave a detailed presentation of their major demands, the European diplomat told McClatchy. These are: Halting the enrichment of nuclear fuel to the 20 percent level; shipping out any fuel for future reprocessing to that level; and halting enrichment activities at Fordow, near Qom, a facility that is buried deep under a mountain and likely could withstand an Israeli attack.
Iran has insisted that economic sanctions be lifted as a condition for any agreement and that the international community recognize its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes.
But at the Moscow talks, Iran brought up a broad series of other issues including cooperation on the crisis in Syria, a close ally to Tehran; Bahrain, where Iran supports the Shiite majority seeking a more democratic system; piracy in the Indian Ocean and narcotics.
“The two parties were miles apart,” a senior European Union diplomat in Brussels told McClatchy. “It was two days of talking at cross purposes.”
Still, the official, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the talks, said, “We do think there is a deal to be reached.”
The European diplomat in Istanbul echoed that point. “We are very keen on a diplomatic outcome, and we hope the Iranians take that up,” he said.