Iran turns down U.S. meeting request during nuclear talks in Istanbul: source

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Iran’s delegation to crunch talks with world powers here Saturday has turned down a U.S. request for what would be a rare bilateral meeting on the sidelines, a source told AFP.

“Their request was presented numerous times but Iran has refused,” said the source close to the Islamic republic’s team at the talks with six world powers, which diplomats said were nonetheless going well.

However, an Iranian news agency reported on Saturday that a U.S. envoy had asked for a meeting with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator during talks on Tehran’s nuclear program in Istanbul and that Saeed Jalili had accepted.

The ISNA news agency did not name the U.S. diplomat, but the U.S. delegation at the talks between Iran and the six powers is headed by Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman.

But a diplomat at the meeting, asked about the report, said it was not clear whether there would be any bilateral meetings.

ISNA quoted an unnamed Iranian diplomat as saying: “The American envoy had requested to meet with Saeed Jalili ... and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator has accepted this.” There was no immediate U.S. comment on the ISNA report.

Meanwhile, two European sources said that the U.S. delegation at crunch talks here Saturday between Iran and six world powers on Tehran’s nuclear program is open to a bilateral meeting with Iranian counterparts.

World powers and Iran launched a new round of negotiations in Istanbul on Saturday, aiming to resolve a long-standing dispute over Tehran’s nuclear program that threatens to spark a new war in the Middle East.

“Delegates have gone in... plenary is just getting started,” a diplomat close to the negotiations said.

Diplomats say the round, the first in 15 months, is unlikely to result in a major breakthrough but offers a chance to resume dialogue and dampen speculation that Israel might launch military strikes to prevent its arch enemy from acquiring nuclear arms.

According to officials close to the negotiations between Iran and the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany (the P5+1), the most that can be hoped for is an agreement to hold more detailed discussions in a few weeks.

“Iran’s most recent response specifically said that they are prepared to sit down and talk about the nuclear issue. For us (Saturday) is about testing that,” one envoy said.

“We don’t expect to get a lot of detail ... but it will be about possibly meeting again in four to six weeks time if we can, when we will get into that detail,” the diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

Representing Washington was Wendy Sherman, undersecretary for political affairs. Ma Zhaoxu, assistant foreign minister, led the Chinese delegation, while Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov headed Moscow’s team.

Also present was EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

The main concern of the international community is Iran’s growing capacity to enrich uranium, which can be used in power generation and other peaceful uses but, when purified further, for a nuclear weapon.

Of particular worry is the formerly secret Fordo site in a mountain bunker near the holy city of Qom, currently enriching to 20-percent purity but which experts say could be reconfigured to produce 90-percent weapons grade material.

Fordo’s expansion, plus a major U.N. atomic agency report in November on alleged “weaponisation” efforts, have led to tighter EU and US sanctions on Iran’s oil sector due to bite this summer and talk of Israeli military strikes.

Highlighting the deep mistrust and the major differences to overcome, a source close to the Iranian delegation led by Jalili said on Friday that Western comments ahead of the Istanbul talks did not “give us much hope.”

“So far the Iranian delegation finds the Western position ... disappointing and discouraging,” the source, wishing to remain anonymous, told AFP.

Following earlier false starts, Western governments -- and in particular U.S. President Barack Obama as he seeks re-election this November -- are wary of finding themselves accused of being duped by empty Iranian promises.

Obama, who has warned against “loose talk” of war, said last month that “both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.”

“I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don’t bluff.”

As a result the West has stressed the need for the Iranian “seriousness”, with Group of Eight (G8) foreign ministers this week highlighting Tehran’s “persistent failure to comply with its obligations.”

“If Iran turns up for the meeting in the same spirit of ‘Istanbul I’, we’re not going to get very far,” one P5+1 source told AFP, referring to the last stab at talks in this Turkish city in January 2011.

US media reports meanwhile have suggested that the P5+1 want Iran to halt enrichment of uranium to purities of 20 percent, shutter Fordo and send Tehran’s stockpiles of enriched uranium abroad.

Iran meanwhile has promised to present “new initiatives”, but diplomats said it was unclear what these were or whether they would be enough to convince the P5+1 that further negotiations, possibly in Baghdad in May, would be worth it.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu sounded upbeat after meeting Jalili late Friday, saying: “We will have good news at the end of the meeting.”

The world powers also want Iran to grant the International Atomic Energy Agency greater access to ease fears that it might have covert facilities, and to answer accusations made in the IAEA’s November report.

But comments from Iran, most notably from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, underline that Tehran will not consent to anything that infringes on its right to peaceful nuclear activities without promises that sanctions will be lifted.

“Iran will ultimately insist upon a guarantee ... that it has the right to enrich uranium,” Mark Hibbs, analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told AFP ahead of the talks.

“Iran’s minimum expectation from the P5+1 is that they seek Iran’s trust by cancelling all illegal resolutions and sanctions as the first step,” hardline Iranian daily Kayhan said Saturday.