Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo by Emil Salman
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In their upcoming round of talks next month with Iran over its nuclear program, the six major powers will demand an Iranian commitment to suspend uranium enrichment at the relatively high level of 20 percent, a senior American official said. There has been concern in the West that enrichment at 20 percent would put the Islamic Republic closer to levels required for nuclear weapons.

Nuclear research plants require enrichment levels of 3.5 percent.

The initial round of talks with Iran took place on Saturday in Istanbul with senior representatives of the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany. The European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, also participated in the meeting, which resulted in a joint commitment to pursue further discussions in Baghdad on May 23.

The senior American official said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was fully briefed both before and after the Istanbul meeting on the strategy being adopted by the six major powers.

On Sunday Netanyahu was critical of the outcome of the talks, saying that the Iranians had been given a "freebie" by the major powers to pursue their nuclear program without limitations until the Baghdad talks.

The American official told Haaretz that in the weeks prior to the Istanbul conference, detailed discussions were held with Israel, both face to face and by telephone, on coordination of the approach to the talks. In addition, it was noted that the head of the U.S. delegation to the talks, Wendy Sherman, fully briefed Israel's ambassador in Washington, Michael Oren, by phone several hours after the talks concluded in Turkey.

According to French and German diplomats with knowledge of the talks in Turkey, officials from French President Nicolas Sarkozy's office, as well as those from the office of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, also briefed officials from Netanyahu's bureau over plans for negotiations with Iran both before and after the Istanbul meeting.

Prior to Saturday's meeting in Turkey, it was made clear to Israel that the initial round in Istanbul was seen as an opportunity to gauge Iran's seriousness in engaging in negotiations without an expectation that the parties would take immediate concrete steps. Netanyahu's criticism of the five-week period between the talks in Turkey and the second round in Baghdad therefore took officials by surprise, not only in Washington but also in Berlin, Paris and London, particularly over his statement that Iran had been given a "freebie."

The senior American official said the United States understands Netanyahu's desire for the international community to take as tough a stance as possible with the Islamic Republic but does not accept the criticism that the Istanbul talks gave Iran a "freebie." The official said the six powers represented in the talks in Turkey, including Russia and China, took a tough, unified stance that Iran must take the first steps to carry out confidence-building measures to prove its seriousness.

In talks between U.S. administration officials and Israel's Ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, as well as with Netanyahu's advisers, it was made clear that the Americans have no intention of allowing discussions to go on for an unlimited time frame. In addition, the Americans clarified that discussions would be held with lower-level Iranian representatives during the five weeks between the two rounds of formal talks with Iran, and that therefore the talks would not be a waste of time from the American perspective.

These talks will also be held between Helga Schmidt, senior advisor to Ashton, and Iran's deputy negotiator Ali Bagheri. According to the American official, in these honest talks it will be made clear to the Iranians that they are expected to notify the Baghdad discussions that they are taking a trust-building move in the shape of suspending the enrichment of uranium to 20 percent.

The senior U.S. official emphasized that an agreement is in place between the six world powers that even if Iran carries out trust-building steps and suspends uranium enrichment to 20 percent, it will not receive anything in return. He added that it was made clear to the Iranians in these discussions that there would be no suspension of sanctions on the part of the United States and the European Union, nor would there be a postponement of the European oil embargo, which will come into effect on July 1.

The representatives of the United States, France, Germany and Britain who participated in the Istanbul talks were surprised by the Iranian reaction, which was relatively committal. "For the first time, the Iranians did not beat around the bush, and agreed to talk directly about their nuclear program," said one senior European official. "We did not hear their regular accusations on the hypocrisy and arrogance of the West and their stance focused on the continuation of a civilian nuclear program and the existence of sanctions."

The senior American official also noted that Washington is satisfied with the Iranian approach to the first round of talks. There were signs that the Iranians have serious intentions, the official explained, adding that such signs have not been seen for a long time. However, he emphasized that Iran has not yet taken the necessary steps to regain the trust of the international community, and that this will only become clear in the second round of talks in Bagdad, when Iran will be required to take physical steps - not just talk.