Iran begins talks with world powers amid low expectations

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 6, 2010; 10:23 AM

GENEVA - Iran and major world powers began meeting Monday for their first talks in 14 months, amid low expectations and public posturing by both sides on Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Iran said Sunday that it would begin to use domestically produced uranium concentrates, known as yellowcake, at its uranium-enrichment facility, meaning it could assert that it would no longer need imports. The announcement suggested Iran had no interest in halting its nuclear activities, and it came just two days after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton directly challenged an Iranian delegation at a security forum in Bahrain to engage seriously at the talks.

Tensions also are high after the killing of one of Iran's most prominent nuclear scientists last week. Iranian officials have blamed the naming of scientists in international sanctions for the killing.

The WikiLeaks disclosure of State Department cables has further complicated matters, showing that Persian Gulf leaders have pressed for a military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities and suggesting that U.S. officials never really believed that engagement with Iran would work.

The two sides have not even agreed on an agenda for the meetings, which are being held in downtown Geneva.

Senior Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili opened the talks by condemning the Nov. 29 assassination of physicist Majid Shahriari in one of two nearly simultaneous car bomb attacks in Tehran, according to a source close to the talks. But Jalili did not make any accusations against other participants, and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton quickly said all the parties condemned the attacks, ending discussion of the matter, the source said.

Jalili's presentation focused on mutual mistrust but also raised the prospect of working together and regional collaboration, the source close to the talks said. Representatives of the world powers replied that the heart of the mistrust is the Iranian nuclear program, the source said.

About 70 to 80 percent of the discussion was about the Iranian nuclear program, and the atmosphere was described as constructive and positive, the source said. The opening plenary session lasted about three hours and was followed by a series of bilateral meetings. The participants were holding an additional plenary session in the afternoon, and there appeared to be agreement to meet again Tuesday morning.

President Obama raised the issue of Iran in a phone conversation Sunday night with Chinese President Hu Jintao, the White House said Monday. It said Obama stressed the importance of the "unity" of the world powers, which include China, in addressing Iran's nuclear program. Obama's phone call to Hu mainly concerned North Korea, the White House said.

Schedule in question

Iran publicly insists it has no interest in discussing the enrichment program that has led to four rounds of U.N. Security Council sanctions, and Western diplomats did not know before Monday's meeting whether Iran would stay for the second planned day of talks. Publicly, Iran had suggested it was prepared to stay only a single day, but the Iranian delegation indicated during Monday's talks that it was prepared to continue discussions Tuesday morning.

Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief, is leading the talks, joined by senior diplomats from the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany. Undersecretary of State William J. Burns, who held a rare bilateral meeting with Iranian officials during the last round of talks, is heading the U.S. delegation and is prepared to hold another bilateral meeting, a U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy.

The Iranian delegation is led by Jalili, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council. The other countries "have to put aside their previous wrong strategy and double standards if they seek the continuation of talks," he said in a statement before departing for Geneva.

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