Iran returned to talks Monday over its disputed nuclear programme after a 14-month break, as world powers sounded out Tehran’s intentions after it claimed to have taken a new step in making fissile material.
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 shortly before the meeting between the European Union’s top diplomat, Catherine Ashton, and Iran’s chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, got under way in Geneva.
The negotiations, scheduled to last two days, began promptly Monday morning at the building of the Swiss mission to the United Nations with Ashton, Jalili and officials from Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States sitting around the same table.
Jalili began by making a strong protest against the recent assassination of a top nuclear scientist in Tehran, according to an Iranian source.
The secretary of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council described the attack as an “Middle Age and fascist act” and asked why the international group did not condemn the attacks, said the source.
Jalili later held one-on-one meetings with the heads of the Chinese, Russian and British delegations, before returning to the table with the extended group late Monday, added the source.
Sergey Rybakov, who heads the Russian delegation was quoted by Iranian media as telling Jalili: “We needed this round of talks and during the negotiations we will try to help to remove obstacles.”
A diplomat close to the world powers said: “We are expecting a serious response from the Iranians. We do not know what is Iran’s state of mind.”
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 it will yield a deal.
Tehran maintains that it is seeking nuclear energy for peaceful purposes but Western countries suspect that the Islamic republic is engaging in a covert programme to build nuclear weapons.
Before Sunday’s yellowcake announcement by Iranian atomic chief Ali Akbar Salehi, European sources hoped the meeting would help re-engage the Iranians even if it did not produce instant results.
But Iranian leaders have reiterated in recent days that the country’s nuclear plans were non-negotiable.
Salehi added a new dimension by revealing that Iran 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.”
“Other countries cannot interfere in Iranian nuclear affairs,” said Ali Bagheri, the deputy negotiator, according to Iranian state television’s website.
“The result of this meeting depends on the attitudes of the other party,” he added on Monday.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki on a visit to Athens said there were “certain shared positions where we could cooperate.”
But he insisted that “the era when certain countries imposed their will is over.
“Science and technology belong to all humanity, for peaceful reasons. Those with major nuclear weapons factories are the real threat,” he added, vowing that Iran “will not settle for anything less” than “what is our right.”
White House official Mike Hammer had warned that the yellowcake step called into “further question Iran’s intentions and raises additional concerns at a time when Iran needs to address the concerns of the international community.”
In Bahrain, Gulf countries eyed the talks with scepticism. Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan openly criticised the West for excluding Iran’s neighbours from the dialogue.
The foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) said the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries should have a role in the negotiations and a solution with Iran.