Iran, world powers sit down for nuclear negotiations
Iran and world powers began talks Monday on the deepening standoff over the Iranian nuclear programme for the first time in 14 months, as Tehran claimed the upper hand by producing its own raw material for enrichment.
Just a day ahead of the talks, Tehran raised the stakes by revealing that it had mined and produced its first home-grown batch of uranium yellowcake instead of seeking to import new supplies.
That triggered statements of concern in Washington and Europe ahead of the meeting at Geneva's Swiss mission between the European Union's top diplomat, Catherine Ashton, and Iran's chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili.
The talks, which are scheduled to last two days, began promptly Monday morning, with Ashton, Jalili and heads of delegations from Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States sitting around a table, the Swiss organisers said.
The meeting, a mirror image of the last attempt in October 2009 to temper Iran's uranium enrichment drive, is taking place amid tougher international sanctions on Tehran and few hopes that a deal can be struck.
"We are expecting a serious response from the Iranians," said a diplomat close to the world powers, noting however, that the agenda for the talks have not been fixed and that this would among first items to be broached.
"We do not know what is Iran's state of mind," added the diplomat.
Tehran maintains that it is seeking nuclear energy for peaceful purposes but Western countries have accused the Islamic republic of engaging in a covert programme to build nuclear weapons.
Before Sunday's announcement by Iranian atomic chief Ali Akbar Salehi European sources hoped the meeting would mark re-engagement with the Iranians even if it did not produce instant results.
But Iranian leaders, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have reiterated in recent days that the country's nuclear plans were non negotiable.
Salehi added a new dimension by revealing that the Islamic republic was now "self-sufficient" in the entire nuclear fuel cycle by being able to supply itself with the raw material for fuel, and would enter the talks with world powers "with strength and power."
In Washington, White House official Mike Hammer said: "This calls into further question Iran's intentions and raises additional concerns at a time when Iran needs to address the concerns of the international community."
Iran also accuses Western powers and Israel -- the sole if undeclared nuclear weapons state in the Middle East -- of being behind the recent assassination of a top nuclear scientist and attempts to sabotage the Iranian nuclear programme.
The last talks in Geneva in October 2009 ended with cautious optimism following the first direct encounter between senior US and Iranian officials for 30 years.
But proposals for a deal on enriching Iran's uranium outside the country for a research reactor in Tehran swiftly unravelled afterwards.
© 2010 AFP