By GEORGE JAHN, Associated Press
ISTANBUL (AP) — After years of failure, Iran and the six world powers may finally make some progress on nuclear negotiations when they meet again Saturday if each side shows willingness to offer concessions the other seeks.
But even if the two sides find enough common ground, they may have a tougher time in any potential second round. That's when the six powers will likely seek further commitments from Tehran to reduce fears that it could use its uranium enrichment program to make the fissile core of nuclear missiles.
Iran has proposed Baghdad as a possible venue for any follow-up meeting, and a European diplomat said Friday the six could agree to meet there in May if there were enough progress in Istanbul. Like several officials and diplomats interviewed by The Associated Press, he demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly reveal confidential information.
As it comes to the table in Istanbul, the West's strongest hand is linked to its sanctions on Iran, penalties that have been tightened in recent months as the U.S. and EU have taken aim at Iran's main cash cow: oil. Tehran in turn, may dangle the prospect of halting high-level uranium enrichment, a process that would shorten the path to making warhead material should it opt for that route.
Diplomats from some of the six powers — the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — said rolling back existing sanctions would be premature and too much of a reward if Iran offers no more than discussions about stopping its enrichment of uranium to 20 percent.
But other sanctions are still unfolding. U.S. moves to punish any bank, company or government that does business with Iran's central bank, its main conduit of oil trade, are to take full effect June 28, just three days before a full oil embargo from the European Union kicks in.
The European diplomat said it was unlikely Western powers would use the talks to offer the possibility of putting the oil penalties on hold if Tehran shows readiness to compromise on 20-percent enrichment and other demands. But the U.S. and the E.U. would be free to review them independently outside of the talks framework and suspend new penalties now in the works if the dialogue showed signs of progress.
Officially, the international community's long-term goal remains what it was when nuclear negotiations began eight years ago — persuading Tehran to stop all uranium enrichment and thereby relieve fears that it will use that program to create the fissile core of nuclear warheads. Tehran has long denied any weapons-related nuclear goals.
A diplomat involved in the talks said, however, that influential Western nations are coming around to the idea that Iran should be allowed to keep some enrichment activity "under the right circumstances," sometime in the future, if fears about possible weapons plans are put to rest.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton challenged Iran to prove its intentions are peaceful, saying Thursday: "We want them to demonstrate clearly in the actions they propose that they have truly abandoned any nuclear weapons ambition."
In Tehran, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, head of the parliamentary committee on foreign relations, said the talks in Istanbul will be "hard and heavy." In a telephone interview, he reiterated Iran will not step back from its nuclear activities.
Still, officials from some of the countries that will be at the table with Iran say that even a sign from Tehran that it is ready to lift its taboo on talking about enrichment may be enough for more talks that will attempt to focus on specifics.
Iranian officials have suggested scaling back on uranium enrichment while continuing to make nuclear fuel and ahead of the talks, chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili vowed to present new initiatives, without specifying what they might be.
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi sounded a conciliatory tone in a Washington Post opinion piece.
"A house can burn to the ground in minutes but takes a long time to build. Similarly, trust can easily and rapidly be broken, but it takes a long time to build," he wrote, adding his hope was that "all sides make genuine efforts to re-establish confidence and trust" at the talks.