Iran and the six world powers prepared on Friday for rare talks aimed at easing fears that a deepening dispute over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program could plunge the Middle East into a new war.
Officials from Iran and the six major powers arrived in Istanbul ahead of Saturday’s bid to restart stalled diplomacy following months of soaring tension and persistent speculation that Israel might attack Iranian nuclear sites.
The meeting is widely seen as a chance for the powers - the United States, France, Russia, China, Britain and Germany - and Iran to halt a downward diplomatic spiral and start to seek ways out of years of deadlock.
Western diplomats have expressed cautious optimism that Iran, which has seen its lifeblood oil exports squeezed by increasingly tough sanctions, may finally be ready to discuss curbs to its nuclear program to ease the pressure.
But Iran’s English-language state television, Press TV, cited sources close to Iran’s delegation as saying Tehran saw “few encouraging points” in the remarks of U.S. and European officials. It did not elaborate.
The West accuses Iran of seeking to develop a nuclear weapons capability and Israel has hinted at pre-emptive military strikes to prevent its arch foe from obtaining such arms.
Iran, which has promised to put forward “new initiatives” in Istanbul, says its nuclear program is peaceful and has repeatedly ruled out suspending it.
Diplomats and analysts played down any expectations of a major breakthrough in the meeting, but said it may pave the ground for further negotiations to resolve the decade-long row.
Western officials have made clear their immediate priority is to convince Tehran to cease the higher-grade uranium enrichment it began in 2010. It has since expanded that work, shortening the time it would need for any weapons “break out”.
Iran has signalled some flexibility over halting its enrichment to a fissile purity of 20 percent - compared with the 5 percent level required for nuclear power plants - but also suggests it is not ready to do so yet.
The talks “will begin a very complex negotiation, and for several months diplomacy will take some pressure off oil prices and help keep the chance of Israeli strikes very low,” said Cliff Kupchan, a Middle East analyst at the Eurasia Group.
But in the end, Kupchan said renewed diplomacy was unlikely to yield a resolution to the crisis, which has helped push global oil prices higher this year.
If Iran were to accept scaling back its uranium enrichment program, it would probably expect to be rewarded with an easing of sanctions, for example a European Union oil embargo due to take effect in less than three months time.
But one Western official appeared to dismiss this: “That decision is taken. We would expect the oil embargo to come into force on July 1 and it would be a surprise if Iran did something that merited moving on that.”
Iran’s deputy chief negotiator Ali Baqeri held talks with a senior Chinese official in Istanbul and was also due to meet a Russian delegate.
The formal negotiations with the six powers and their chief representative, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, will get underway on Saturday, but Ashton and Iranian chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili are expected to meet over dinner on Friday evening.
The last time the two sides met, also in Istanbul in January last year, they could not even agree an agenda.
Both sides signalled in the run-up to Saturday’s discussions their intent to give diplomacy a real chance.
“We hope that this first round will produce a conducive environment for concrete results through a sustained process,”
Ashton’s spokesman Michael Mann said in an email.
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, in a rare opinion piece in a U.S. newspaper, said his country hoped that all sides would commit to comprehensive dialogue and that negotiators make “genuine efforts to reestablish confidence and trust”.
Defying intensifying sanctions, Iran has continued to expand its uranium enrichment program - activity which can have both civilian and military purposes - and experts say it now has enough material for four atomic bombs if processed much further.
Mark Fitzpatrick, a director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies think-tank, said getting Iran to halt 20 percent enrichment would be an interim goal “to put a lid on the most troublesome” aspect of Iran’s nuclear program.
A long-term deal will have to “provide confidence that Iran cannot quickly produce nuclear weapons,” he told Reuters, adding this would require both better monitoring of Iran’s nuclear work and limits on its uranium enrichment and stockpiles.
Additional reporting by Zahra Hosseinian, Jonathon Burch, Alexandra Hudson, Ayla Jean Yackley and Ece Toksabay; Editing by Jon Hemming