Iran signals readiness to negotiate on uranium


THE FIRST international negotiations on Iran’s nuclear programme for 15 months will get under way today in Istanbul, amid increasing signs that Tehran is prepared to trade limits on its enrichment of uranium for relief from economic sanctions.

Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, held preliminary talks yesterday afternoon with Russian and Chinese diplomats, telling them he had come prepared for substantive negotiation.

“All the signs from the Iranians are that they want to be serious and constructive,” a source close to the talks said.

Mr Jalili was due to have dinner last night with the EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, before a day of negotiations at Istanbul’s main conference centre.

Diplomats said they did not expect an immediate deal, but they hoped the talks would open a path towards a diplomatic resolution of the Iranian nuclear crisis and avert the threat of a new war in the Middle East. They said that the benchmark for success would be whether there was enough common ground by tonight to justify a second round of talks within the next few weeks.

“Iran will have to show that it is ready for serious engagement,” said a diplomat involved in the talks.

“Quite what it will look like is something we will have to make a judgment call on. The stakes are pretty high, so it’s important to get it right.”

Another source at the talks said there had been a string of signals from Tehran that it would be prepared to limit its enrichment of uranium in return for a relaxation of sanctions.

At the last round of talks in Istanbul in January 2011, Mr Jalili declared that Iran’s nuclear programme was not open to negotiation unless sanctions were lifted first. That was deemed unacceptable by the six-nation group – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, Germany and France – and the talks collapsed.

Since then, the European Union has announced an oil embargo against Iranian imports, and the US has declared sanctions aimed at the international financing of the Iranian oil trade.

The punitive measures are not due to take effect for two months but they have already had a profound effect on the Iranian economy, triggering a run on the currency and forcing Iran to sell its oil at a steep discount to its remaining buyers in Asia.

Before arriving in Istanbul, Mr Jalili said he would bring “new initiatives” but he did not specify what they would be. Iran has refused demands from the UN Security Council to suspend the enrichment of uranium, which can be used for both electric power generation and nuclear weapons.

Two years ago, Iranian scientists started producing uranium at a much higher level of enrichment than for power generation, 20 per cent compared with 3.5 per cent. (The percentages refer to the concentration of the most fissile uranium isotope, U-235.) – (Guardian service)