Iran Responds to Call for Talks

By Crail, Peter | Arms Control Today, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Iran Responds to Call for Talks

Crail, Peter, Arms Control Today

Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili formally responded to a call for talks with six major powers Feb. 15, potentially paving the way for the first negotiations on Iran's nuclear program in more than a year.

That same day, Iran announced a series of new achievements related to its nuclear program, although former U.S. and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials said the advances were not as significant as Iran portrayed them to be. A Feb. 24 IAEA report appeared to contradict some of Iran's claims, but did demonstrate that Iran had accomplished a significant expansion of its uraniumenrichment capacity.

Jalili's response was delivered in a letter to EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, who represents the so-called P5+1 group (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States). Ashton sent a letter to Jalili last Oct. 21 calling for "meaningful discussions on concrete confidence-building steps" to address international concerns about Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Although senior Iranian officials have expressed Tehran's readiness for new talks for several weeks, Jalili's letter was the first formal indication that Iran was willing to hold talks on the nuclear issue.

P5+1 diplomats said in interviews in January that although Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi told Ashton on the sidelines of a conference in Bonn Dec. 5 that Iran wished to hold talks, the six countries still needed a formal response from Tehran. The diplomats said it was important for Iran to demonstrate that it was willing to discuss the nuclear issue seriously in order to avoid a repeat of the last meeting between the two sides in January 2011.

At that meeting, Iran insisted that talks could proceed only if the P5+1 explicitly recognized Iran's right to enrich uranium and lifted the sanctions that have been imposed on Tehran. (See ACT, January/ February 2011.)

Officials from P5+1 countries suggested that Jalili's letter might be enough to allow talks to proceed but that the six countries first had to examine the letter and discuss it with one another.

"This response from the Iranian government is one we've been waiting for, and if we do proceed, it will have to be a sustained effort that can produce results," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters in Washington Feb. 17.

A U.S. official said in a Feb. 27 interview that the United States is "ready to move forward with talks later this spring" and is currently consulting with the other P5+1 members. The official explained that Washington hopes to hold "more than just one meeting," but added that "it will be Iran's actions at the negotiating table that ultimately determine whether any negotiation can be a sustained effort-which we seek."

Ashton's and Jalili's letters suggested an interest in engaging in a gradual process addressing the nuclear issue. Ashton said that the "initial objective" of the P5+1 "is to engage in a confidencebuilding exercise aimed at facilitating a constructive dialogue on the basis of reciprocity and a step-by-step approach."

In his letter, a copy of which was obtained by Arms Control Today, Jalili appeared to envision a similar process. Citing the P5+1 recognition of Iran's right to peaceful nuclear energy contained in Ashton's letter, Jalili said that based on that understanding, "our talks for cooperation based on step-bystep principles and reciprocity on Iran's nuclear issue could be commenced."

The initial step to which Ashton appears to be referring in her letter is a proposal focused on Iran's production of 20 percent-enriched uranium. Yahoo News reported Jan. 18 that the United States has drafted a proposal that would require Iran to halt 20 percent enrichment and ship out the roughly 100 kilograms of 20 percent-enriched uranium it has produced. In return, the news report said, the P5+1 would agree not to seek additional sanctions on Iran. …

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