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U.S. and major powers agree with Iran on formal nuclear talks in May

ISTANBUL — Iran and leading world powers agreed Saturday to begin formal talks on Iran’s nuclear program with an aim of ensuring that Tehran stays within the confines of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — and doesn't develop a nuclear weapon.

After a day of “constructive and useful” discussions in Turkey’s biggest city, Lady Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s high commissioner for foreign affairs said the next round will take place in Baghdad starting May 23.

She said the two sides agreed to take a step-by-step reciprocal approach in addressing the major issues in order to restore “full confidence in the exclusively peaceful” development of nuclear capabilities by Iran.

She said the main purpose of the talks was to make sure Iran was serious in wanting to proceed with discussions.

Saeed Jalili, who headed the Iranian negotiating team, said Iran wanted to ensure in the talks that the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia were proceeding not on the basis of threats or under a strategy of pressure. He said he saw indications that the major powers had a “positive” attitude.

Jalili stressed that under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran had the right to enrich nuclear fuel for peaceful purposes. He stood below a banner that said: “Nuclear Energy for All, Nuclear Weapons for None.”

He said Iran would ask the international community to lift the sanctions that are restricting Iran’s oil exports and bank transactions.

The talks here appeared to open the way to real discussions that might end the impasse between Iran and the major powers.

Many diplomats were hoping that Iran would offer a moratorium on production of both low-enriched uranium — at 3.5 percent strength — and of uranium enriched to 20 percent, but it wasn’t clear what sort of incentives the major powers were planning to offer in exchange. Ashton's spokesman, Michael Mann, said the Western delegation had brought no new offers because a set of measures that had been prepared for the January 2011 meeting was still on the table.

Iran insists that its program of nuclear enrichment is intended entirely for peaceful uses, including providing electricity and producing medical isotopes, but the United States and other Western powers say the rapid expansion of Iran’s enrichment capabilities, and construction of new facilities in a mountain near Qom, could be a hedge to allow construction of a nuclear weapon should the top leadership decide to do so.

Israel has said that acquisition of a nuclear weapon by Iran would be a mortal threat to the Jewish state, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened a preemptive strike if it appears that Iran is on the verge of acquiring nuclear capability.

President Barack Obama has not ruled out the use of U.S. military force if Iran is seen to be acquiring a nuclear weapon, but he has committed himself to seeking a diplomatic solution if possible.