Iranian and European officials expressed confidence in the results of Saturday’s negotiations on Tehran’s disputed nuclear program as it was announced that the two sides will meet again in Baghdad on May 23.
The very fact that there will be another round adds to a growing sense among diplomats that the two sides were making notable progress in talks that have grown increasingly tense as the West has tightened sanctions on Iran and Israel has threatened a pre-emptive military strike on the Islamic republic.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said there had been “constructive and useful” talks with Iranian chief negotiator Saeed Jalili and said this was a “process which, if it is to be successful, will have to be sustained.”
“I have been very clear in my discussions with Dr. Jalili, and he has understood and agreed, that we are looking for the next meeting to take us forward in a very concrete way,” she told reporters.
The U.N. Security Council has imposed four rounds of sanctions on Iran because of suspicions that its civilian nuclear program is a cover for a secret atomic weapons drive, a charge Iran vigorously denies.
The international community’s main concern, particularly for Iran’s arch foe Israel, is Tehran’s growing capacity to enrich uranium, which can be used for peaceful purposes but, when purified further, for a nuclear weapon.
Echoing Ashton, other Western countries stressed the need for the Baghdad discussions to get to the core of the international community’s almost decade-old standoff with the West over its nuclear program.
The White House hailed the “positive attitude” from Iran and world powers on Saturday ̶ but Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes reiterated Washington’s call for Tehran to take “concrete steps.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague was also cautious, saying in a statement the Istanbul talks “were a first step towards that objective, but there is still a long way to go.”
“We now need agreement on urgent, practical steps to build confidence around the world that Iran will implement its international obligations and does not intend to build a nuclear weapon,” he added.
France took a similar position.
“Iran has to make urgent and concrete gestures to establish confidence,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said in a statement issued in Paris.
Jalili for his part praised the “desire of the other side for dialogue and cooperation. We consider that as a positive sign... For the Iranian people the language of threat and pressure doesn’t work.”
But the challenges in the next round could be far more significant. That’s when the six powers will likely seek further commitments from Tehran to reduce concerns that it could use its uranium enrichment program to make the fissile core of nuclear missiles.
Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful, and Ashton said Saturday that Tehran has a right to such a peaceful program. At the same time, she added, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty must be the “key basis” for future talks.
Iran asserts that it has not violated the treaty, and that it has a right under that agreement to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes.
The six countries negotiating with Iran - the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany - came to Saturday’s meeting with modest expectations.
Diplomats said before the meeting began that even general Iranian readiness to accept the need to discuss its enrichment program would be considered enough of a success to warrant a follow-up round.