Iran and six world powers began negotiations about the country's nuclear program Monday with low expectations, at odds on what to talk about and with tensions high over the assassination of one of Tehran's most prominent scientists.
The talks in Geneva - the first in over a year - are meant to ease concerns over Iran's nuclear agenda. Tehran says it does not want atomic arms, but as it builds on its capacity to make such weapons, neither Israel nor the U.S. have ruled out military action if Tehran fails to heed UN Security Council demands to freeze key nuclear programs.
The meeting formally began shortly after 10 a.m. after limousines brought participants to a conference center near the Swiss mission to the United Nations in Geneva.
The delegations of Iran, the European Union, the United States, Russia, Britain, France and Germany hurried inside to escape pouring rain, and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton met Saeed Jalili, Iran's chief negotiator, in the foyer of the conference room.
As the doors closed to reporters, the two had joined the representatives of the other delegations sitting around a light brown oval wooden table, with flags of their nations behind them.
Despite the friendly atmosphere, expectations were low.
Iran's bold stance was highlighted Sunday, when it announced it had delivered its first domestically mined raw uranium to a processing facility, claiming it is now self-sufficient over the entire nuclear fuel cycle.
A senior diplomat in Vienna who is familiar with the issue said the move was expected and mainly symbolic. Still, the timing of the announcement was significant in signaling just a day ahead of the Geneva talks that Tehran was unlikely to meet international demands that it curb its nuclear activities.
Over two planned days, Saeed Jalili, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, will meet with EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, with Ashton's office saying she will act on behalf of the U.S., China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany. In fact, senior officials for those six powers will attend and do much of the talking with Tehran.
Chances of meaningful progress were low even before the assassination late last month of a prominent nuclear scientist and the wounding of another further clouded hopes of success at the talks.
Jalili called the killing a disgrace for the Security Council on Saturday, claiming the attacks were linked to efforts to implement international sanctions. He did not elaborate.
Still, the expected presence of Ali Bagheri reflects the importance Iran attaches to the meeting. Officials familiar with the composition of the Iranian delegation say Bagheri has a direct line to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Western officials urged Tehran to meet international concerns about its nuclear activities.
Invoking possible military confrontation over Iran's nuclear defiance, British Defense Secretary Liam Fox said Saturday that the Geneva talks need to make a serious start toward resolving the issue.
"We want a negotiated solution, not a military one - but Iran needs to work with us to achieve that outcome," he said. "We will not look away or back down."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it was up to Iran to restore trust about its nuclear intentions, urging it to come to Geneva prepared to firmly, conclusively reject the pursuit of nuclear weapons.
But for Iran the main issues are peace, prosperity - and nuclear topics only in the context of global disarmament.
"Iran has not and will not allow anybody in the talks to withdraw one iota of the rights of the Iranian nation," President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said before the scheduled talks, warning the other nations at the table to put aside the devil's temper and negotiate in good faith.
Expectations are suitably low, even allowing for the fact that both sides are likely talking tough going into the talks with the purpose of maximizing their starting negotiating positions.
Glyn Davies, the chief U.S. delegate to the International Atomic Energy Agency, said the talks were meant to shape conditions for a new start, even while insisting that Iran's nuclear program has to be first and foremost on the agenda.
Other officials from the four Western nations coming to the table acknowledge that the six powers are coming without a firm agenda. One of them used freestyle wrestling as an analogy of what to expect.
"Think of this as a sort of catch-as-catch can, said the official, a senior diplomat who asked for anonymity because he was briefing The Associated Press on privileged information. I don't think we are going to get into any kind of substantive discussions - the best we can hope for is a second round of meetings.
Such caution is understandable.
The last Geneva meeting of the seven nations in October 2009 appeared to put Iran nuclear talks back on track after a four-year hiatus, but Tehran and the six powers began to quibble about what was agreed on only days after they ended.
Iran initially seemed to accept a plan to export 75 percent of its low-enriched uranium to be made into special fuel for a Tehran reactor making medical materials - a move that would have stripped it of much of the material it then had stockpiled that could have been turned into a bomb.
But it then started putting conditions on the deal, which unraveled, deepening mistrust between the two sides.
A fourth set of UN Security Council sanctions because of Tehran's continued expansion of uranium enrichment has further burdened relations.
Nations have a right to enrich domestically and Iran insists it is doing so only to make fuel for an envisaged network of reactors and not to make fissile warhead material. But international concerns are strong because Tehran developed its enrichment program clandestinely and because it refuses to cooperate with an IAEA probe meant to follow up on suspicions that it experimented with components of a nuclear weapons program - something Iran denies.
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