Iran has formally agreed to a new round of nuclear talks with the United States and five other world powers, European Union officials confirmed Tuesday, setting the stage for a critical effort to stave off a military confrontation in the Persian Gulf region.
E.U. and Iranian officials signed off on a Feb. 26 meeting in the former Kazakh capital of Almaty, ending months of haggling over where and when negotiations would take place. Iran agreed in principle to new talks two months ago, but diplomatic progress appeared to falter amid a fierce internal debate among Iranian leaders over whether to accept limits on the country’s nuclear program.
The European Union “hopes that the talks will be productive, and that concrete progress can be made toward a negotiated solution,” said spokesman Michael Mann.
Since June, when Iranian officials last sat down with diplomats from the P5-plus-1 group — the United States, Britain, China, France, Russia and Germany — Iran’s economy has been battered by U.S. and European economic sanctions, including an oil embargo that has wiped out half of Iran’s oil exports. Iran’s currency, the rial, tumbled to a record low against the dollar in the past week.
Iranian media had been reporting for days that an agreement on new talks was imminent, amid conflicting signals from Iranian officials over whether the Islamic republic was prepared to make concessions on its nuclear program.
Tehran also has been abuzz with rumors that back-channel talks have been underway with the Obama administration, and some Iranian officials have appeared to embrace the idea of bilateral negotiations with the world power that regime hard-liners still regard as the “Great Satan.” Neither government has confirmed that such contacts have occurred.
Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, in a speech Sunday in Munich, said Tehran was prepared to talk directly with Washington to address concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But he said Iran needed assurances that “the other side this time comes with authentic intentions . . . to resolve the issue.”
U.S. officials have privately acknowledged steep odds for securing a deal with Iran in the coming weeks. The P5-plus-1 nations have made only mild revisions to a proposal that Tehran flatly rejected in June, a plan that called on Iran to freeze some of its most controversial nuclear activities in exchange for a promise of future relief from economic sanctions. Iran, which insists that its nuclear program is exclusively peaceful, has demanded that Western governments formally recognize its right to make enriched uranium for commercial nuclear power plants.
Domestic politics in Tehran and Washington have complicated past efforts to resolve the nuclear impasse. In Iran, the controversy has become entangled in a power struggle between outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his main rival, parliament speaker Ali Larijani. Both men are members of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, the decision-making body that has the authority to approve or reject the results of any bilateral or multilateral negotiations. The council’s decisions, in turn, must be confirmed by Iran’s political-religious supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, before they can take effect.
The Obama administration is under pressure to adopt a tough bargaining stance with Iran. Conservatives in Congress and some Israeli officials insist that Iran should not be allowed to retain any capacity to make enriched uranium. Iran possesses thousands of pounds of low-enriched uranium, fuel that U.S. officials fear could be converted to the highly enriched form used in nuclear bombs.
Rezaian reported from Tehran.