Iran and world powers announced new talks on Tehran's nuclear program starting February 26, but hopes of progress after Tuesday's announcement were tempered when an Iranian official said the West's goal in talking was to undermine the Islamic republic.
First word of the meeting, to be held in Kazakhstan, came in comments from Iran's Supreme National Security Council to state news agency IRNA. Later, a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she hoped to make progress in allaying concerns about a program that Iran denies has a military purpose.
Both sides said the widely expected appointment to meet was made on Tuesday by Iran's deputy nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri and European Union counterpart Helga Schmid.
However, there were immediate signs from Iran, which holds a presidential election in June, that powerful figures were skeptical of their worth.
Western powers say Iran may be close to having the capacity to build a nuclear weapon, though Tehran insists it is seeking only electricity. The United States and its allies, which have imposed tough economic sanctions, are keen to show progress on an overall agreement for curbing and monitoring Iran's nuclear activities - not least because Israel, seeing itself especially threatened, has warned it could mount a pre-emptive attack.
A spokesman for Ashton, who represents the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany, said: "She hopes that the talks will be productive and that concrete progress can be made towards a negotiated solution to meet the international community's concerns about the Iranian nuclear program."
But comments by Abdollah Haj-Sadeghi, a representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to Iran's elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, indicated continued differences of opinion in Tehran; those may limit the prospect of narrowing the dispute with the West at the talks in Almaty, the first of their kind since negotiators met in Moscow in June.
"They will never want real dialogue and negotiations," Haj-Sadeghi was quoted as saying by the ISNA news agency, addressing religious students in the theological center of Qom.
"Their goal is to inhibit the Islamic revolution. If they can't eliminate the Islamic revolution, they want to weaken and inhibit this revolution," he said. "A revolution with a religious nature cannot reconcile itself with arrogance."
Iranian officials often use the term "arrogant" to denote Western nations. It was not immediately clear whether he was referring to the continuing process of negotiation with the six world powers, known as the P5+1, or to the prospect of direct negotiations with the United States, Iran's main adversary.
Haj-Sadeghi's remarks contrasted with those of Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, who said in Berlin on Monday that he was "optimistic" regarding what he saw as a new approach from the United States regarding Iran.
Shashank Joshi, a senior fellow and Middle East specialist at the Royal United Services Institute, said the mixed messages reflected Iran's "fragmented" political system, in which power is divided between elected and unelected bodies.
"Haj-Sadeghi's comments are consistent with a widely held Iranian view: that sanctions are less about the nuclear issue and more about regime change," Joshi said. "He may therefore have been repeating a standard line rather than responding to Salehi."
Many Iranian leaders may be wary of entering talks which quickly collapse, Joshi said. "Some of this rhetoric is therefore a way of managing expectations, and pushing responsibility for failure back on to the West," he said.
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