World Powers Agree to Resume Nuclear Talks With Iran
BERLIN — For the first time in more than a year the global powers dealing with Iran’s disputed nuclear program said Tuesday that they would resume face-to-face negotiations.
“I have offered to resume talks with Iran on the nuclear issue,” said Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign affairs chief, who represents the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany in dealings with Iran. “We hope that Iran will now enter into a sustained process of constructive dialogue which will deliver real progress.”
The resumption of negotiations could relieve rising pressure from Israel to use military force against Iran. But the decision is not without risks. Direct talks could allow Iranian negotiators to exploit various nations’ differences. Failure could offer a rationale for military strikes.
Ms. Ashton’s positive response to an Iranian offer made last month to resume the talks comes at a delicate moment in the years-long effort to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Her response came one day after President Obama urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to give diplomacy and economic sanctions a chance to work before taking military action.
The Israelis are increasingly skeptical that international pressure will lead Iran to abandon its uranium enrichment activities, which Israel and the West suspect are a cover for Iran to achieve the ability to make nuclear weapons. Iran has said the activities are purely peaceful.
At a news conference in Washington on Tuesday, Mr. Obama defended his record on Iran against Republican critics who have called him too lenient. On the contrary, Mr. Obama said, he had deeply isolated the Iranian authorities and had helped to press them to resume negotiations.
Fears of a pre-emptive Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities have driven up oil prices and represent a threat to the already fragile state of a global economy still reeling from a sovereign debt crisis in Europe. At the same time, the Iranians have acutely felt the squeeze from sanctions aimed at pressing the government to freeze its uranium enrichment program.
The resumed talks represent a significant step forward, because all six parties agreed to participate. But that may have been the easy part. One senior French official said that a desire to avoid a military confrontation could lead some parties to take a softer stance on Iran, looking for any small concession that could be interpreted as success.
“Tactically it’s much better if you want to divide your enemies to be friendly and cozy with some of them,” said Henning Riecke, an expert on European security at the German Council on Foreign Relations.
A senior French official described the Iranian letter proposing the resumption of talks as ambiguous, saying it referred to “various nuclear issues” rather than nuclear enrichment specifically. At the very least, it represents the first time that Iran’s nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, explicitly mentioned the nuclear issue.
“We don’t want to waste our time talking to the Iranians about the international cost of pistachios,” the French official said.
Time is of the essence for negotiators because many fear that any stalling by Iran will give the country more time to relocate enrichment centrifuges deep inside mountain bunkers that are difficult to bomb.
There was little optimism in the West that talks would lead to significant breakthroughs, much less an end to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Guido Westerwelle, Germany’s foreign minister, warned Iranian officials against using talks to stall.
Iran only damages its own interests through “tactical maneuvering and playing for time,” Mr. Westerwelle said.
But as fears of an Israeli strike have intensified in recent weeks, any progress was viewed as welcome. “Our approach to sanctions has been proven to be the right one — not targeted against population but meant to change the Iranian approach to the nuclear file,” a senior European Union official who spoke on the condition of anonymity told reporters in Brussels.
“We don’t want to have talks for talks,” the official said. “We want concrete results. They are very, very important talks, and we do not want them to fail.” Another senior French official said that the United States and France “have exactly the same approach.”
The British foreign secretary, William Hague, issued a statement reflecting that vision. “We all agree that the international community should demonstrate its commitment to a diplomatic solution by acknowledging Iran’s agreement to meet, by testing its desire to talk and by offering it the opportunity to respond to our legitimate concerns about its nuclear intentions,” Mr. Hague said.
In a formal response letter sent Monday to Mr. Jalili, Ms. Ashton said that “dialogue will have to focus on this key issue” of the nuclear program. Now that Mr. Jalili had pledged to this, she wrote, talks could resume “as soon as possible.”
But that will first require preliminary discussions between European and Iranian diplomats, possibly including a top aide to Mr. Jalili, that are expected to take place over the next two weeks to decide on details like a site for the talks, according to the European official. No formal negotiations would take place until after the New Year holiday in Iran this month, the official said. Talks could formally get under way in early April.
Hanging over the resumption of talks is deep concern about a rerun of previous negotiations in Istanbul that broke off in January 2011 when the Iranians resisted discussing the nuclear issue. In France, Bernard Valero, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, warned against a repeat of “the experience of the fruitless discussions in Istanbul” and underlined that Iran faced a “united” front from global powers.
Such a failure could increase the risk of military action, said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, an advocacy group in Washington.
“If you have talks going, it will make it much harder for the Netanyahu government to take military action,” Mr. Parsi said. “It is critical that the talks end up becoming a real negotiation, a real process, and not just another exchange of ultimatums. If the two sides fail to establish a process rather than just another meeting, the risk of war will rise significantly.” New York Times 3/6/2012