Ashton plays down Tehran defiance ahead of nuclear talks


EU FOREIGN policy chief Catherine Ashton played down defiant rhetoric from Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as talks loom next week on Tehran’s nuclear programme, the first for 14 months.

Ms Ashton’s talks with Iran’s nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili take place next Monday and Tuesday in Geneva. Senior diplomats from the US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China will also participate.

The renewed engagement marks a big test for Ms Ashton, who is the envoy of the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany on the Iranian nuclear programme. She took office one year ago when the Lisbon Treaty was enacted and her new diplomatic corps – the European External Action Service – is formally established today.

Mr Ahmadinejad told Iranian reporters on Monday that his uranium enrichment programme would not be negotiated away. He was willing, however, to discuss nuclear co-operation.

Ms Ashton’s spokesman said the talks were a “two-way street” but said Iran’s own nuclear project was central to the dialogue.

“We take note on a regular basis of the quoted remarks from Iran. Our policy is not to comment. [Ms] Ashton has been very clear that the core subject of these talks is Iran’s nuclear programme,” the spokesman said.

The western powers say they have evidence to show Iran is building a nuclear bomb, but Tehran has insisted the project is for exclusively peaceful purposes.

Iran has ruled out stopping its enrichment activity and has continued to defy calls for greater co-operation, stoking fear of a wider conflict in the Middle East.

While the hardening of UN, EU and American sanctions on Iran in recent months is widely held to be behind Mr Ahmadinejad’s return to the talks, there is little hope of a significant breakthrough, at least in the first instance.

Mr Ahmadinejad rubbished reports based on WikiLeaks disclosures that many of his country’s Arab neighbours had pushed for a US attack against its nuclear programme. “Regional countries are all friends with each other. Such mischief will have no impact on the relations of countries,” he said.

“We don’t think this information was leaked. We think it was organised to be released on a regular basis.”