September 30, 2009
Six world powers gather in Switzerland on Thursday for a meeting with Iran's chief nuclear negotiator and U.S. officials said there could be an opportunity for a rare bilateral meeting with the Iranians.
Diplomats from some of the countries taking part -- the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China -- said they hoped the Iranians would engage in constructive talks on how to end the long-running standoff over Tehran's nuclear program, which the West fears is for making weapons.
"This can't be a phony process," a senior U.S. official said in Washington. "It can't be a process where they go through the motions."Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful and has defied five U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding it suspend all sensitive nuclear activities.
U.S. officials said Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns, head of the U.S. delegation, was not actively seeking a one-on-one meeting in Geneva with Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili. But they said Burns would not reject one if the opportunity arose.
"I think there'll be the opportunity for sidebar conversations that could involve any of the 5-plus-1 partners and the Iranians," a senior U.S. official told reporters on condition of anonymity. "That's the way this is laid out."'THE ENGAGEMENT TRACK'
In Washington, senior Obama administration officials said the United States will not threaten Iran with fresh sanctions at the one-day talks in Geneva but has been actively laying the groundwork to pursue them if necessary.
"This is the engagement track tomorrow, not the pressure track," one senior official said.But the official said the United States has been preparing "a range of areas" in which to pursue sanctions against Iran if Tehran ignores Western entreaties about its nuclear program.
The officials would not discuss specifics of the sanctions, which experts believe could be targeted at the energy sector. But they said consultations among allies have been active and that the sanctions could be applied through the U.N. Security Council or coordinated among individuals countries.
"You're in a much better position to prepare the ground on the pressure track if you have demonstrated unmistakably that you're doing everything you can on the engagement side," one official said.Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who made a rare visit to Washington on Wednesday to inspect his country's unofficial diplomatic office there, was due to give a news conference at the United Nations in New York on Thursday.
The Geneva talks will not be the first time a U.S. official has sat at a table with an envoy of Tehran. But Thursday's meeting will be the first time a U.S. official will be a "full participant" in a meeting of the major powers with Iran.
The U.S. approach contrasts sharply with a similar meeting in Geneva in July 2008, when Burns left the room at one point to avoid having to shake hands with Jalili the Iranian negotiator, according to diplomats who were present.
Washington severed relations with Tehran in 1980 during a hostage crisis in the wake of Iran's Islamic Revolution.
The administration of former President George W. Bush reluctantly began to take part in multilateral talks with Iran on issues like its nuclear program, Iraq and Afghanistan toward the end of his presidency.
President Barack Obama, Bush's successor, has said he wants to improve U.S.-Iranian ties but Tehran has reacted coolly to his overtures.
WEST EYES RUSSIAN, CHINESE REACTION
Diplomats said the biggest question for Thursday's meeting is whether Jalili will be willing to talk about Iran's nuclear program and a second enrichment facility at Qom, which the United States, Britain and France revealed last week.
The Iranians say their nuclear program is not up for discussion and would like to focus instead on regional security issues, such as Afghanistan and other topics.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in New York last week his delegation would ask at the Geneva meeting that Iran be allowed to buy enriched uranium for medical purposes from the United States or any other country prepared to sell it.
A U.S. official said Washington would make clear that it was not prepared to sell Iran any uranium.
The Western powers are also eager to gauge Russian and Chinese reaction to last week's announcement that Tehran had been concealing the uranium enrichment plant at Qom. Western diplomats said Moscow and Beijing appeared to share their concerns about the facility.
"The Russians and Chinese don't want a nuclear-armed Iran," a Western diplomat told Reuters. "They've made that clear."According to U.S. officials, the talks at the picturesque Le Saugy villa in the Geneva countryside will probably not be the last meeting between the six countries, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and the Iranians.
This is going to be an extraordinarily difficult process," the senior U.S. official said. "I doubt that it's going to be measured in terms of one meeting."He said it could not be an "open-ended process or talks just for the sake of talks." Obama has said he wants progress on the Iranian nuclear issue before the end of the year.
The six powers also want a response from Iran to their offer of economic and political incentives in exchange for a suspension of enrichment activities. Diplomats said Tehran has yet to give a serious response to the offer.
A refusal by Iran to discuss its nuclear program and the incentives proposal would leave the six powers little choice but to launch talks on a fourth round of U.N. sanctions against Tehran, Western diplomats said.
As Jalili left for Switzerland promising that he was coming to Geneva with "goodwill," the head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog said Tehran had broken a transparency law by failing to disclose its second enrichment site much earlier.
Iran reported the site to Mohamed ElBaradei's International Atomic Energy Agency on September 21 -- 3-1/2 years after Western powers said construction of the plant began.