Iranian and European negotiators tentatively agreed Wednesday to meet next month, signaling a possible new start to negotiations to restrain the Tehran's nuclear program and reduce fears it is trying to make atomic bombs.
Still, diplomats familiar with the closed-door meeting conceded no progress was made on the main issue — Iran's insistence on its right to enrich uranium, which is a process that has peaceful uses but also can produce the fissile core of nuclear warheads.
Iran insists its program has the sole aim of making fuel for atomic reactors that would generate electricity and denies US charges that it is trying to develop nuclear weapons.
The European Union wants Tehran to move its enrichment program abroad, perhaps to Russia. That, in theory, would reduce the possibility that the technology would be used to make weapons-grade uranium.
"We repeated our positions and the Iranians repeated theirs," said Stanislas de Laboulaye, the senior negotiator for France, representing the European Union at the negotiations along with Britain and Germany.
Despite the continued divide, the session signaled a return to dialogue after four months of growing nuclear tensions exacerbated by anti-Israel comments from Iran's president.
European negotiators said both sides would consult with their governments on the details of resuming the dialogue. The Europeans broke off previous talks in August after Iran ended a freeze on uranium conversion, a precursor to enrichment.
"Both sides set out their positions in an open and frank manner ... (and) agreed to consult with their respective leaderships with a view of holding another round of talks in January," Laboulaye said.
He said those talks would be aimed at "agreeing on the framework of (further) negotiations." Javad Vaidi, the senior Iranian negotiator who handles international affairs for the Supreme National Security Council, described Wednesday's session as giving both parties "the opportunity to see the other side's point of view."
An EU diplomat who like others spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the meeting were confidential said the discussions could be termed successful because "they represent a return to dialogue."
Another EU diplomat said the decision to meet again was achieved only because both sides avoided discussion of their differences on enrichment beyond mentioning their diverging positions.
That raised the possibility that any negotiations in the new year might quickly founder, unless the sides showed a willingness to compromise.
A European official suggested the EU was ready to show flexibility — perhaps even to the point of considering a previous Iranian proposal of keeping the enrichment process in Iran but allowing some degree of foreign control by forming joint ventures to run the program.
But the official said that could only happen at a later stage, if the Europeans were convinced the Iranians were serious about reaching a negotiated compromise.
Iran's enrichment ambitions are viewed with suspicion because the country hid them from UN inspectors for nearly two decades before its secret nuclear activities were revealed nearly three years ago.
Since then, a probe by the UN nuclear watchdog, the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, has unearthed Iranian experiments, blueprints or equipment that either have "dual-use" applications or seem to have no nonmilitary function. That has further added to concerns, even though no firm evidence of a weapons program has been found.
The growing suspicions have boosted international support for US efforts to have Iran referred to the UN Security Council for consideration of sanctions. Recent comments by Iran's president — including calling the Holocaust a "myth" — have contributed to the country's isolation.
But Russia and China — two of the five nations that wield vetoes on the Security Council — have opposed referral, so the West has stopped short of forcing a decision on the issue at past meetings of the IAEA's 35-nation board of governors.
(Chinadaily.com via agencies December 22, 2005)