Nuclear talks with Iran edge toward collapse

Iran says it conducted a test of its Hawk missile, two days ahead of talks scheduled with the U.S. and other powers over its disputed nuclear program. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran is "ready for cooperation based on justice." (Jan. 19)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 21, 2011; 7:44 PM

ISTANBUL - Diplomats from the United States and five other world powers wrangled with Iranian officials late into the night Friday as talks on Tehran's nuclear program edged close to a possible collapse.

An anticipated two days of talks ran into trouble early on when Iranian leaders announced "preconditions" - including an immediate end to economic sanctions - for considering any proposals on limiting its nuclear program.

Iran's proposal was summarily rejected by the negotiators for the nations known as the P5-plus-1 - the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany - who had gathered in Istanbul's opulent Ciragan Palace for the second meeting with Iran in five weeks.

Iran "realized that the six [nations] are serious - the six are solid," said a Western diplomat participating in the discussions.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in a speech Wednesday in Tehran, told a cheering crowd that Iran "will not retreat an inch," adding that "the nuclear issue is over from the Iranian point of view."

The defiant tone continued in Istanbul when Iran's chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, opened an initial plenary session by demanding an end to sanctions as a precondition to any nuclear agreement. He also called for a formal recognition by world powers of Iran's right to perform work in all phases of the nuclear fuel cycle, including uranium enrichment.

Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, had opened the talks Friday morning by outlining what diplomats described as "practical steps" that Iran could take to increase the transparency of its nuclear activities and slowly gain trust.

"Iran's reply was, 'Fine, but first you need to drop sanctions,' " said a Western diplomat knowledgeable about the discussions. The six powers were unanimous in their opposition to preconditions, the diplomat said.

U.S. officials had expressed hope that Iran officials would arrive at the Istanbul talks ready to bargain after a series of setbacks in the country's nuclear program and widespread pain from economic sanctions. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was among several high-ranking U.S. officials in recent weeks to call attention to the impact of sanctions on key Iranian industries and companies.

Iran has also acknowledged the damage done to Iran's nuclear equipment by a computer virus known as Stuxnet, which appears to have damaged hundreds of centrifuge machines used to enrich uranium. U.S. officials have not acknowledged any role in the creating or distributing virus, which some U.S. experts say could have substantially lengthened Iran's timeline for building a nuclear weapon. Iran insists that it has no plans to make an atomic bomb.

One Iranian delegate said that the Islamic republic's differences with the world powers appeared to be narrowing Friday, the Associated Press reported.

"Compared to the Geneva talks, the negotiations in Istanbul are being held in a more positive way," Abolfazl Zohrevand was quoted as saying, referring to talks last month that yielded only an agreement to meet again in Turkey. "There are good signs the two sides will make progress."

The Obama administration, however, sought publicly to lower expectations for the meeting.

"We're not expecting any big breakthroughs," said Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company