Washington and Tehran to meet over nuclear plan

Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi talks to Jane Margaret Harman of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington at the security conference in Munich yesterday. photograph: michael dalder/reuters

Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi talks to Jane Margaret Harman of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington at the security conference in Munich yesterday. photograph: michael dalder/reuters

Mon, Feb 4, 2013, 00:00

Washington and Tehran have signalled readiness to hold bilateral talks on Iran’s controversial nuclear programme – if they are confident the other side’s intentions are serious.

At the Munich Security Conference, Iran’s foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi responded positively to remarks by US vice-president Joe Biden that preventing Tehran acquiring a nuclear capability need not mean a “sentence of economic deprivation and international isolation”.

“There is still time, there is still space for diplomacy, backed by pressure, to succeed,” said Mr Biden. “The ball is in the government of Iran’s court, and it’s well past time for Tehran to adopt a serious, good-faith approach to negotiations.”

Mr Salehi agreed to a meeting on February 25th in Kazakhstan with the five permanent members of the UN security council and Germany – and signalled openness to further meetings with Washington. “We are ready for talks but this time it must be made certain that the other side comes with authentic intentions,” he said.

Mr Biden said Washington was ready, too, for bilateral talks with Iranian leaders if a “real and tangible” basis existed for talks.

Until now only sporadic meetings have taken place between western countries and Tehran over a uranium-enriching programme it insists is for peaceful energy purposes.

Thaw in relations

After three unproductive rounds last year, analysts believe a thaw in Tehran-Washington relations carry a chance of greater progress – easing regional tensions with Israel as the US readies next year’s troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

While in Munich, Mr Biden held talks with Syrian opposition leader Ahmed Moas al-Khatib, who also met Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. But there was no shift between the Washington and Moscow fronts on Syria.

While Mr Biden described Syrian president Bashar al-Assad as a “tyrant, hell-bent on clinging to power”, Mr Lavrov said the real tragedy of Syria was “western insistence that toppling Assad is the most important goal”.

Asked if Russia would back the creation of a military-backed humanitarian corridor to the civilian population, Mr Lavrov answered: “No. Every use of force or threat of force is unacceptable.”

Outgoing Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak hinted, meanwhile, that last week’s military strike was an Israeli effort to stop the flow of weapons from Syria to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

Biden speech

“That is another proof that when we say something we mean it,” he said. “We say that we don’t think it should be allowable to bring advanced weapons systems into Lebanon.” Despite contributions from dozens of delegates in Munich it was Mr Biden’s speech, the first foreign policy address of the second Obama administration, that attracted the greatest attention. He insisted that Washington’s new Asian strategy would not come at Europe’s expense.

“Europe is the cornerstone of our engagement with the rest of the world and is the catalyst for our global co-operation,” said Mr Biden. “It’s that basic. Nothing has changed.” He urged swift agreement on a US-European free trade deal, describing the rewards for success as “almost boundless”.

Mr Biden backed claims by other Munich participants that the Mali military engagement made the case for “a more integrated . . . co-ordinated” military strategy.