Iran and the European Union continued tentative negotiations on Thursday over Tehran’s controversial nuclear programme, but each side remained cautious about any progress made.
The talks, held in Ankara at the invitation of the Turkish government, are in their second day. They are the most serious attempt for seven months to seek to break the international deadlock over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Iran insists that its programme is for purely peaceful purposes, but the EU and the US suspect it of seeking to build nuclear weapons. Tehran says it has a right to enrich uranium, a process that can produce both nuclear fuel and weapons grade material. The United Nations Security Council insists that Iran suspend such activities.
Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief, and Ali Larijani, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, held talks on Thursday that were expected to continue into the afternoon. The two sides held several hours of talks on Wednesday, without any clear sign of a breakthrough.
Mr Solana remained cautious on Thursday. “The fact that we are again together is a very important development,” he said at a news conference. This appeared to suggest that the most immediate benefit of the current meeting is that it is taking place, rather than achieving a concrete aim. He said formal negotiations had not started, and that today’s meeting was an attempt to move towards that goal.
Mr Solana is representing the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the US, Russia, China, France and the UK – and Germany at the talks.
Mr Larijani sounded more positive. “In some areas we are approaching a united view,” he said, without being specific. “We are aiming to reach out for a common paradigm to solve this problem.” He indicated on Wednesday that further talks could be held in about two weeks.
The UN has imposed two sets of sanctions on Iran in recent months for its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment. The EU imposed further sanctions on Tuesday, targeting companies and individuals. Iran is facing another UN deadline of May 23 to suspend its uranium enrichment or face the possibility of further sanctions.
Commenting on the talks ahead of a Nato foreign ministers meeting in Oslo, Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, said Iran could not be allowed to practise enrichment and reprocessing “because if that’s what they’re doing you get better at it over time – at the same time that we are in negotiations”.
She added that the US would back a suspension of action at the UN if Iran halted uranium enrichment.
”If Iran is prepared to do that, the US, President [George W] Bush, is prepared to reverse 27 years of American policy and sit down face to face with the Iranians, with our allies, to talk about how Iran can have civil nuclear power without a proliferation risk,” she said.
Additional reporting by Daniel Dombey in Oslo