Iran Demands U.S., Europe Hold Off Attack as Long as Nuclear Talks Continue, Sources Say

Western, Turkish diplomats say meeting between permanent UN Security Council members, Germany and Iran held in a positive atmosphere; sides fail to reach a breakthrough, but agree to more talks next month.

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Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The round of nuclear talks between the six major world powers and Iran ended on Saturday in Istanbul without a significant breakthrough but with an agreement to reconvene next month. Sources close to the talks told Haaretz that the Iranians are demanding an American and European commitment not to carry out a military attack on their country as long as the talks continue.

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Iranian chief negotiator Saeed Jalili, right, and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton before their meeting in Istanbul April 15, 2012.Credit: AP

Western and Turkish diplomats said Saturday's meeting, which involved the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council - the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China - in addition to Germany and the Iranians, was held in a positive atmosphere.

"They met in a constructive atmosphere," said Michael Mann, a spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, after the morning session of talks Saturday. "We had a positive feeling that they did want to engage."

Iran's ISNA news agency reported that an American envoy had asked for a meeting with Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili and that Jalili had accepted, but another news agency, Fars, later denied that.

The Istanbul talks were the first such meeting for 15 months. A second round is scheduled to take place in the Iraqi capital Baghdad on May 23.

Expectations for the talks in Istanbul had been low at the outset. The United States termed them a last chance at a diplomatic solution to the crisis over the Iranian nuclear program. The U.S. and Israel have not ruled out military action to destroy Iran's nuclear sites.

The major drama at the talks in Turkey was simply the fact that they took place, this time without prior conditions. In January last year, the Iranians refused to enter into discussions without a commitment to lift international sanctions against their country. For its part, the U.S. had refused at the time to discuss removing sanctions without a halt by the Iranians of their nuclear fuel enrichment operations.

This time around, among the details leaked from the conference hall was an indication that the world powers would agree to continued Iranian nuclear enrichment activities at the relatively low level of 3.5 percent, and would not require that the Fordo underground facility near the Iranian city of Qom be dismantled. The world powers would require continuous monitoring of nuclear fuel production sites, according to the leaks.

Western officials have made clear their immediate priority is to persuade Tehran to cease the higher-grade uranium enrichment it began in 2010. It has since expanded that work, shortening the time it would need for the relatively rapid development of nuclear weapons. Iran has signaled some flexibility over limiting its uranium enrichment to a fissile purity of 20 percent, compared with the 5 percent level required for nuclear power plants, but also suggests it is not ready to do so yet.

A Turkish government source told Haaretz that following a series of contacts by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan with the Iranian leadership, there was a sense that Iran was ready to forgo uranium enrichment at a level of 20 percent for a short period, but would demand the immediate lifting of some of the international sanctions in return and the gradual scrapping of others.

Also to be considered in the next round of discussions is a Russian proposal for a blueprint for the talks including a time line, in an effort to build a sense of trust between Iran and the Western powers. The plan would call for Iran to gradually halt uranium enrichment while the West would at the same time remove sanctions. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has vowed that his country would not cede its right to enrichment activities, claiming that they are designed for peaceful purposes.



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