Iran signals interest in talks on nuclear program, diplomats say

In a speech at the U.N. General Assembly session on poverty, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that capitalism was on the verge of death.
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 22, 2010; 11:16 PM

UNITED NATIONS - Iran increasingly appears willing to enter into negotiations in the near future over its nuclear program, diplomats close to the talks said Wednesday, a move that would restart a process that ended abruptly last fall.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad earlier this week expressed public interest in renewing talks with the United States and other major powers. Iranian officials have privately echoed that sentiment in conversations with diplomats on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, leading officials to believe Tehran will soon formally agree to resume talks.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her counterparts from Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany met Wednesday to discuss the prospects for negotiations and to review the implementation of sanctions imposed on Iran in June by the U.N. Security Council. In a statement afterward, the officials stressed their interest in a reaching a deal with Tehran.

"We reaffirmed our determination and commitment to seek an early negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear issue and focused our discussion on further practical steps to achieve it at an early date," the ministers said in a statement read to reporters by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is the chief negotiator with Iran for the major powers.

The statement did not suggest any new sanctions or other punitive steps on Iran if it failed to negotiate seriously, and diplomats said any discussion of new sanctions would be far in the future.

In a tentative deal reached in Geneva last October, Iran agreed to begin discussing its nuclear program while the United States, Russia and France agreed to help refuel an Iranian research reactor used for medical purposes. But the negotiations never started and the deal to help with the research reactor quickly fell apart, too.

In the past year, amid signs of a slowdown in nuclear work, Iran has significantly bolstered its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and begun to enrich an even higher-grade stockpile for the research reactor - even though it lacks the technical capability to turn the material into usable fuel rods.

Iran has tried to make the need to refuel the research reactor the center of the talks, notably in a deal with Brazil and Turkey that was ignored by major powers - but diplomats said Iran's inability to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor provides an opening for confidence-building steps that would lead to a broader agreement on Iran's larger nuclear program.

"They have gotten the message: The TRR may be a problem for them but it is not a problem for us," a senior diplomat said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "The TRR is not the point of this. The point of this is the Iranians have a nuclear program that looks like a nuclear weapons program."

A senior U.S. official, briefing reporters after the meeting Wednesday, said they focused on a "phased approach" to the talks and "how a revised and updated arrangement for providing fuel for the Tehran research reactor could be part of that effort as a way to build confidence and pave the way for tackling the hard issues at the core of Iran's nuclear program." He spoke on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the State Department.

Officials are also brainstorming for other ways to ensure the success of this set of talks - the latest in a series of stop-and-start negotiations with Tehran since 2003. The United States has ruled out any grand gesture, such as Clinton joining the other foreign ministers in a meeting with Ahmadinejad, but there is an intense desire to finally break out of an unproductive cycle.

"We want the engagement to be a real engagement and we will do some intensive thinking now to have an arsenal of ideas. But we also think it is time the Iranians produced an idea or two," the senior diplomat said. "So far the pattern is we produce ideas and they produce enriched uranium."

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