ISTANBUL — Opening a new chapter in their long, stormy relationship with Iran, the United States and five other major powers agreed Saturday to sit down with the Tehran government in six weeks for formal talks aimed at ensuring that its nuclear program will not lead to nuclear weapons.
The talks will take place May 23 in Baghdad, Iraq, one of the few Middle East capitals where the government in power, dominated by Shiite Muslims like the regime in Tehran, has shown sympathy with Iran's Islamic regime.
U.S. and European diplomats said the plan is to map out a step-by-step procedure to address concerns over Iran's dramatic expansion of its uranium stockpile. They stressed that any actions to ease the ever-tightening international sanctions against Iran would be reciprocal and based on concrete steps by Iran.
Iran's chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, took center stage after the day of talks, appearing at a post-conference press briefing under a banner headlined, in English, "Nuclear energy for all, nuclear weapons for none."
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He referred to the banner — which also had the pictures of five Iranian nuclear scientists who were assassinated, presumably at Israeli behest — and also reaffirmed the fatwa or order by Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader, declaring possession of a nuclear weapon to be "a sin."
That part of the Iranian message appears to have been delivered.
Jalili said the representatives of the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia had welcomed Iran's offer to cooperate in resolving the nuclear issue and specifically noted Khameini's fatwa. A senior American official later also specifically noted to reporters that Jalili had spoken of the fatwa behind closed doors in the meeting with foreign officials.
A second part of the Iranian message was a reassertion of its rights, as a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to enrich uranium for peaceful nuclear purposes — a right which the U.N. Security Council has demanded be suspended so long as there were questions about Iran's current enrichment program and its expansion of nuclear facilities deep underground.
The third part was Iran's desire to remove the international sanctions, which are now severely impairing Iran's ability to sell its oil and to conduct banking and trade transactions.
The major powers that sat at the same round table as Jalili did not spell out all their demands of Iran before the media, partly because they are well known — nor the incentives they would offer for resolving the dispute. Iran now has an enormous stockpile of 5,450 kilograms of low enriched uranium and about 100 kilograms of medium enriched uranium, continues the enriching process, and could with the centrifuges now in place conceivably enrich uranium to the 90 percent level needed for a nuclear weapons.
Instead of specifying the problems or the rewards, the joint statement and statements by several top officials stressed the process by which they hope to clear up the decade-long dispute with Iran over the nuclear program.
"We set out with a very clear objective," said Lady Catherine Ashton, the European Union's chief foreign policy official and spokesman for the six powers at the table. "We had to know if Iran was serious."
She called the talks, which ran for a good 12 hours Saturday, "constructive and useful." An aide said that in comparison with their last meeting with Iran in January 2011, when "the Iranians did not want to engage," this time "we had a positive feeling."
Ashton said the talks will attempt "step by step" to restore international confidence" in Iran's "exclusively peaceful" intentions in its nuclear program, with a policy of reciprocity. She did not spell it out, but the implication was the international community will respond by lifting one or more sanctions if Iran can answer the questions satisfactorily and open all its facilities to regular inspection.
One part of the joint statement that Jalili emphasized was that the non-proliferation treaty forms a key basis for the discussion on Iran's nuclear program, and Iran has the right to develop peaceful civilian uses for nuclear energy. What it didn't reaffirm — because France, Israel and other countries oppose it — was Iran's right to enrich nuclear material.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has demanded that the international community deny Iran the right to enrich uranium, but President Barack Obama refused to take that additional step in recent talks in Washington. Turkish diplomats, who are in closer touch with top officials in neighboring Iran than any of the powers at the talks, said any such demand is a non-starter, certain to scupper negotiations.
The plan between now and May 23 is to map out a framework that includes steps by both sides. Deputies of the senior officials who took part in the Istanbul meeting, "will prepare a draft proposal to create a framework for further cooperation," Jalili told reporters. "After drafting the program, reciprocal cooperation will start. We will witness steps on both sides."
A senior U.S. official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said the Istanbul meeting showed that there is "a serious environment conducive for discussion." But the official stressed that no easing of sanctions will occur except in response to concrete steps by Iran. "We have no expectation today that we are lifting any sanctions," the official said. "Our dual track approach will continue," a reference to negotiations in parallel with the ratcheting up of sanctions. "Dialogue is not sufficient. We have to have concrete actions."
One other theme at the meeting — in the light of tense relations that nearly every major power has with the Iranian regime — was the desire of all the participants, including the U.S. representative, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, to have a separate meeting with Jalili. He snubbed almost everyone, agreeing to a bilateral meeting only with the Russian representative.
"We let the Iranians know that we would welcome an off-record" bilateral meeting, the senior U.S. official told reporters. "I did not expect to have one, but it would be great if we did."
One surprising aspects of the talks Saturday was that many observers, including the hosts, the Turkish government, anticipated the major powers and the Iranians would agree on initial measures to build confidence for the weeks ahead — even an agreement to tone down the rhetoric and threats, including Israel's threat to launch pre-emptive strikes against Iran, that have raised fears of war and contributed to a rise in oil prices.
No such steps were forthcoming. Asked why not, the senior U.S. official said there was "no absence of ideas," and the task ahead was for Iran to put forward its ideas. As for agreeing to tone down the threats, "the tone today was one of serious" discussion, the official said.
In fact, Russian deputy foreign minister Sergey Ryabkov, who represented his country in Istanbul, told reporters in Washington last week that the six countries could not agree on what offer to bring to the talks.
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