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Iran ‘ready for nuclear talks’

Western states are sceptical about Iran’s commitment to talks

Gulf News

Washington: Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, told world leaders on Sunday that Tehran was prepared to resume negotiations aimed at curbing its nuclear programme this month in Kazakhstan, potentially ending eight months of stalled international diplomacy.

But US and European Union officials said in interviews following Salehi’s speech in Munich that they were sceptical Tehran would follow through with his pledge, given the nation’s recent history on the issue. They also said his government has yet to formally commit to sending a delegation to Astana on February 25.

European Union Foreign Secretary Catherine Ashton proposed the date and location to Iran’s government in a letter sent last month, but hasn’t received a reply, her spokeswoman confirmed late Sunday.

The international diplomatic bloc that Ashton leads, which comprises the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, known as P5+1, hasn’t held direct, high-level talks with Iran since last June.

“We have proposed concrete dates and venue ever since early December,” Maja Kocijancic said. “We hope the negotiating team will also confirm.”

Salehi spoke on Sunday to an annual international security conference in Germany that was addressed a day earlier by both US Vice- President Joe Biden and Ashton. During his comments, the Iranian diplomat appeared to confirm that a new round of negotiations between Tehran and the international diplomatic bloc was set.

“I have good news. I heard yesterday that 5+1 or E3+3 will be meeting in Kazakhstan on the 25th of February,” Salehi said. “We have always insisted that you let the negotiations continue until a mutually satisfactory resolution is reached. But then it was not us who stepped back. We are still very hopeful.”

US and European officials said on Sunday that they were cautiously optimistic that Tehran would formally announce its attendance in Kazakhstan through a letter to Ashton in the next few days. But there was also scepticism in Washington and Brussels that Iran was committed, or capable, in the coming months to engage in substantive talks aimed at eliminating Tehran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons.

Iran is scheduled to hold presidential elections in June, potentially limiting the government’s ability to make any concessions on the nuclear front. US and European officials also said there were visible splits inside Iran over the issue of negotiations.

Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, is the personal representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has consistently voiced an unwillingness to scale back Iran’s nuclear programme. Jalili is seen playing a larger role in shaping Tehran’s nuclear policy than Salehi, a US-educated nuclear physicist, or members of Iran’s Foreign Ministry.

Since December, US and European officials have intermittently said they believed a new round of talks with Iran was imminent. Tehran, however, has repeatedly pulled back, often quibbling about the location, these officials said. Istanbul was initially discussed as a site, before Tehran raised its preferences for Kazakhstan, Iraq or Egypt.

There was growing frustration in Brussels about the lack of response from Tehran on the proposed new meeting. One senior EU official said that the P5+1 had been keen in late January to present a “refreshed offer” to persuade Iran to scale back its nuclear activities, but hadn’t been able to.

While no high-level P5+1 talks have taken place with Iran since June, there have been a number of EU-led contacts since then. Ashton and Jalili met in Istanbul last September and technical experts from the P5+1 met with their Iranian counterparts last summer.