By BRIAN MURPHY and NASSER KARIMI, Associated Press
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — The head of an influential foreign policy committee in Iran's parliament said the country does not want Turkey to host talks with world powers over Tehran's nuclear program, raising further questions Thursday about whether negotiations can begin as scheduled next week.
The comments by Alaeddin Boroujerdi do not represent the final word by Iran's ruling system, but strongly suggest a growing impasse ahead of talks set to start April 13 between Iran and the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany.
Iran has balked at having the negotiations in Istanbul because of Turkey's escalating pressure on the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, a key Iranian ally. Boroujerdi, head of the parliamentary committee for national security and foreign policy, supported Baghdad as a venue, one of several alternative sites floated by Iran in recent days. Iraq's Shiite-led government has long-standing ties with Iran, and other sites mentioned by Iran — Syria, Lebanon or China — are also allies of Tehran.
"Iranian officials are not interested in Turkey as the host," Boroujerdi was quoted as saying by the independent Etemad newspaper.
Western officials have complained about Iran bargaining over the venue for this month's planned talks with world powers. Boroujerdi's comments were published shortly after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged Iran to commit to nuclear negotiations as soon as possible, describing the time for a diplomatic solution as limited. Clinton on Wednesday said the U.S. wasn't interested "in talks for the sake of talks."
Earlier this week, Clinton said the talks would take place in Istanbul. Western officials have remained committed to Turkey as the host, although possible alternatives could be Switzerland or Vienna, the site of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency. European envoys have taken the lead in trying to work out a location for the talks.
Iran's semiofficial Fars news agency said late Thursday that Tehran rejects holding the talks in a European country. The report said Iran considers Baghdad its first choice and added that the two sides are still discussing the venue.
The last attempt at talks over Iran's nuclear ambitions quickly collapsed 14 months ago after Iran refused proposals that included freezing its uranium enrichment in exchange for delivery of reactor-ready fuel from outside the country. The West and others fear Iran could use its ability to make nuclear fuel to eventually develop atomic weapons. Iran says it only seeks reactors for energy and medical research.
Mohammad Farhad Koleini, a political analyst in Tehran, said Turkey's policies toward Syria have sharply soured relations with Iran.
"Turkey has shown interest in playing in the ground of the West," he said. "It tried to carry the flag of changes in Syria without considering that it could lead to doubts about Turkey's position among its neighbors."
The hard-line Javan daily wrote, "Turkey has lost its impartiality."
The newspaper said Ali Akbar Velayati, the international adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, believed holding talks in Baghdad will "promote the political weight of Iraq," a critical backer of Tehran as Western sanctions bite into Iran's economy.
Bouroujerdi said Baghdad is capable of hosting the talks since it has good relations with all the countries involved — including Iran and the United States — and currently holds the presidency of the Arab League.
But an Arab League summit in Baghdad last week saw low turnout, with only 10 heads of state of the 22-member body attending and the rest sending lower-level delegates. Security concerns and strained relations with Sunni Gulf countries contributed to the lack of attendance.
Meanwhile, a decades-old debate within Iran's clerical leadership over the wisdom of seeking better relations with the U.S. resurfaced in the media. This suggests that although the hard-liners appear to be in the ascendant in directing Iranian foreign policy and crafting the country's defiant response to Western pressure, doubts remain among key clerics.
Ultraconservative newspaper Kayhan slammed former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani for repeating 1980s-era recommendations for better ties with the United States.