US holds direct talks with Iran at nuclear meeting
Iran's top nuclear negotiator met officials from the United States, Germany, Russia, China, Britain and France only a week after a new secret Iranian uranium enrichment plant was disclosed.Geneva -- A US envoy held one-on-one talks with Iran's top nuclear negotiator for the first time Thursday during a critical meeting with five other world powers hoping to convince Tehran to freeze its atomic drive.
Iran's top nuclear negotiator met officials from the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, the countries known as P5+1, in a villa overlooking Lake Geneva only a week after a new secret Iranian uranium enrichment plant was disclosed. Iranian missile tests this week also rattled international nerves.
The US envoy at the talks, William Burns, also met separately with Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili, in a rare official encounter between representatives of the arch-foes, a US spokesman said.
US State Department deputy spokesman Robert Wood refused to reveal details of the encounter, but it highlights the new engagement policy favoured by US President Barack Obama since he succeeded George W. Bush in January.
It is the first time that Iranian and US officials holds direct talks on a bilateral issue since the two sides broke relations 30 years ago, although meetings took place during the Bush years to discuss Iraq and Afghanistan, a US official said.
Amid widening Western concerns about whether Iran is trying to build a nuclear bomb, the international powers have urged Iran to give the International Atomic Energy Agency access to the previously secret nuclear site near the holy city of Qom.
The talks with the UN Security Council's five permanent members and Germany provide Iran an opportunity to come clean about its nuclear ambitions, Wood said.
But he warned that US patience has its limits.
"This is the first time that we've agreed to sit down with Iran as a full member of the P5+1 discussions," he told journalists.
"We're willing to engage in this process but we're not going to do it forever. There's going to come a point when we're not going to engage," he said.
Jalili told the envoys during the talks that Tehran would never give up its right to nuclear power, Iran's ISNA news agency reported. "The Islamic republic of Iran will never give up its absolute rights," he was quoted as saying.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Iran on the eve of the talks that it risks "greater isolation and international pressure" if it refuses to give access to nuclear facilities and freeze sensitive activities.
French Defence Minister Herve Morin said his country would press for new sanctions against Iran if it fails to clear up nuclear suspicions by December.
Iran denies that it is seeking a bomb. But the UN Security Council has already imposed three sets of sanctions on Iran for refusing to end its uranium enrichment.
"Iran is in total contradiction with its international commitments and every day shows that it is pursuing its nuclear military programme," Morin told Le Figaro newspaper.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said he hoped a breakthrough could be reached in Geneva to avoid sanctions. "Sometimes they are useful but we are not talking about the sanctions in Geneva so far," he said.
Russia and China have been reluctant to impose more sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme.
Israel's vice prime minister Silvan Shalom dismissed the talks as a "waste of time," saying Iran would never give up its alleged bid to acquire nuclear weapons. He called for "real" sanctions.
The talks between Iran's top nuclear negotiator and the international envoys are the first since Obama took office.
The United States wants Iran to respond to an international offer to suspend sanctions in exchange for Iran halting nuclear enrichment. The revelation of the new site has added a sense of urgency, a US official said.
IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei said Iran was "on the wrong side of the law" by not declaring the new plant to his agency before last week. The IAEA asked Iran for access to the site "as soon as possible," Iranian state television said.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad signalled for the first time Wednesday a willingness to discuss enrichment operations at the talks, saying Tehran could allow a third party to enrich uranium for a reactor.
He also proposed a framework for discussions with the six powers, including a "summit of leaders to talk about all proposals" of common interest, including nuclear proliferation.