Iran traded proposals with six world powers Wednesday in a new round of talks aimed at persuading Tehran to curb its nuclear program and ease concerns it wants to make atomic weapons. But divisions over sanctions complicated the discussions.
The Baghdad talks could offer a test of how much the United States and its allies are willing to bend on demands for Iran to halt all uranium enrichment and instead concentrate on just stopping the highest-grade production.
No breakthrough accords were expected in the Iraqi capital, suggesting that all sides are still shaping their strategies and the negotiation process is likely to be long and complex. That could allow U.S. and European allies to significantly tone down threats of military action. But it would likely bring objections from Israel, which claims that Iran is only trying to buy time to keep its nuclear fuel labs in full operation.
The meetings opened with the so-called 5+1 group — the permanent UN Security Council members, the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France, plus Germany — putting forward a proposal apparently aimed at reining in Iran's highest-level uranium enrichment. Many world leaders fear the uranium, enriched to 20 per cent, could be quickly turned into warhead-grade material. Other details of the plan were not immediately disclosed.
"We hope the package that we put on the table is attractive to them so they will react positively," Mike Mann, spokesman for the head of the European Union delegation that is leading the talks, told reporters. "It's up to them to react."
Hours later, Iran made its move by offering a counterproposal that includes what one member of its negotiating team called "nuclear and non-nuclear issues." The official would not discuss details of the plan, but said it would be discussed in private meetings with diplomats from the European Union and China, an Iranian ally.
The Iranian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive talks, predicted negotiations would continue Thursday.
Enriched uranium used in medical research
Earlier, Iranian envoys set their goal for the Baghdad talks: Seeking agreements to lessen, or at least delay, sanctions that have targeted Iran's critical oil exports and cut off the country from lucrative European markets.
Mann would not discuss whether the 20 per cent level enrichment represented a red line that could again scuttle the negotiations, which had only restarted last month after collapsing in early 2011.
The high-enriched uranium is far above the level needed for energy-producing reactors, but is used in medical research. Iran claims its nuclear program is only for electricity and medical applications.
Tehran has tentatively agreed to allow UN inspectors to restart probes into a military base with suspected links to nuclear arms-related tests. Mann expressed cautious optimism about the still-unsigned deal with the International Atomic Energy Agency, but said it would have little bearing on Wednesday's talks.
Mann also suggested that any rollback in sanctions was unlikely in the Baghdad talks. He said some of the most painful sanctions — including a European Union ban on Iranian oil imports beginning July 1 — are a "matter of the law and they will come into force when they come into force."
Sanctions at the heart of debate
The Obama administration has been vague about its immediate goals, with officials saying the talks will gauge Iran's seriousness and explore elements of a possible agreement. A Western diplomat in Baghdad said the talks will focus on "confidence-building measures" that Iran's nuclear program is only being used for peaceful purposes.
Washington has shown little willingness to bargain, despite the tentative IAEA agreement to inspect the Parchin military complex southeast of Tehran. That's where the UN believes Iran ran explosive tests in 2003 needed to set off a nuclear charge. Tehran says Parchin is not a nuclear site.
Iran's top officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have repeatedly said that Iran does not seek nuclear arms and have called such weapons against Islamic principles.
During a visit to western Iran on Wednesday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad evoked Khamenei's belief that "production and use of weapons of mass destruction is forbidden" by Islam.
"There is no room for these weapons in Iran's defence doctrine," he said at a gathering to commemorate victims of Iraqi chemical weapons during the 1980-88 war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
Iran is sticking to its right to enrich uranium as a signatory of UN nuclear treaties. The West and others fear the level of enrichment Iran is doing can be turned quickly into weapons-grade uranium.
At the heart of the debate are sanctions the West has placed on Iran to force it to the bargaining table — particularly on an EU decision to cut all crude oil imports from Iran that are set to take effect July 1. The 27-nation EU accounts for just 18 per cent of Iran's total oil exports.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Senate backed proposals for further sanctions on Iran, including requiring companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges to disclose any Iran-related business. U.S. and European measures already have targeted Iran's oil exports — its chief revenue source — and effectively blocked the country from international banking networks.