ISTANBUL, Turkey — Amid low expectations and divergent views on Iran’s nuclear program, the Islamic Republic resumed talks with world powers in Geneva on Monday after a 14-month lull.
The storyline is now familiar: Iran’s chief negotiator Saeed Jalili will have demanded that the West accept Iran’s uranium enrichment and its “right” to peaceful nuclear power, and stated that the “pressure” of sanctions was pointless.
And EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton and other top diplomats will have demanded that Iran stop that enrichment – as required the United Nations Security Council – and prove it is not aiming for nuclear weapons.
News reports from Geneva suggested that nuclear issues consumed much of the agenda, despite Iran’s insistence that the subject – the one of most concern to the world powers – would remain off limits.
The Iranian delegation was said to be more open than expected to discussing its nuclear program with top diplomats. Ms. Ashton was representing the so-called P5+1 nations (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany). US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns – who held brief bilateral talks with Mr. Jalili at the last round of talks in October 2009 – was also at the table, along with other senior P5+1 officials.
“The choices are clear for Iran: it can face growing isolation or cooperate,” an EU official who asked not to be named told Reuters.
Iran lambasts West over assassinated nuclear scientist
As part of its pre-talks posturing, the head of Iran’s nuclear agency announced on Sunday that it had delivered its first shipment of homemade yellowcake – the raw material for enrichment, made from indigenous Iranian uranium. Iran claimed that it is now for the first time “self-sufficient” in the entire nuclear fuel cycle.
Iranian media emphasized Mr. Jalili’s tough opening gambit in Geneva, reporting that he used the first session to condemn the P5+1 for its silence over two bomb attacks in Tehran last week that killed nuclear scientist Majid Shahriari and wounded another, Fereydoun Abbasi. Mr. Abbasi topped the list of designated Iranians “involved in nuclear or ballistic missile activities” in a 2007 UN Security Council resolution – a status that Iranian officials say made him a target.
“Such deplorable acts aimed at preventing Iran from acquiring new technologies indicate a medieval mindset,” Jalili said, according to state-run PressTV. He added that the “Iranian nation has been the biggest victim of terrorism.”
Jalili noted that anti-regime militants had killed hundreds of Iranians in the past: he said Israel’s Foreign Ministry had highlighted the attacks on their website; and he recalled that the head of British intelligence, Sir John Sawers, stated in late October that Iran’s nuclear program “cannot be addressed purely by conventional diplomacy.”
“We need intelligence-led operations to make it more difficult for countries like Iran to develop nuclear weapons,” Sir John had said at the time. “The risks of failure in this area are grim…. And the longer international efforts delay Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons technology, the more time we create for a political solution to be found.”
Iran, US posturing
The talks come as secret US diplomatic cables published by whistleblower website WikiLeaks show widespread concern and even obsession that Iran’s peaceful nuclear program masks a drive for weapons, in capitals from Washington to Tel Aviv to Riyadh.
The atmosphere in Geneva appeared to start with scripted respect. Jalili arrived to the meeting ahead of his team, nodding toward Ashton in the foyer without extending his hand. Ashton kept her hands clasped behind her back during the greeting, clearly aware that official custom in the Islamic Republic is that unrelated me and women do not publicly shake hands.
Yet in the days prior to the Geneva talks, posturing turned into daily sport. Both sides portrayed the talks as a favorable gesture toward the other, and that they were in a position of strength.
Following its announcement of producing yellowcake uranium, Iran would “go to the negotiations with strength and power,” said Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s atomic energy organization. “No matter how much effort they put into their sanctions and in creating all sorts of hindrance…our nuclear activities will proceed.”
The White House replied that the yellowcake claim “calls into further question Iran’s intentions and raises additional concerns.” Iran has yet to resolve all outstanding questions with the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency about alleged weapon design efforts.
Seeking to further boost Iran’s stature ahead of talks, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared there was ample proof that world powers were not as strong as they once appeared and that Iran was exposing the weakness of the West.
“Americans are worse than the most dictatorial powers,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said in a speech. “They assassinate nuclear scientists because they are not strong enough to counter the Iranian nation, and think a nation will step back with the assassination of its loved ones.”
Referring to the talks, the arch-conservative president called on US-led Western powers to “change” their behavior toward Iran, and to “put aside the devil’s temper” in negotiations.
Iran’s foreign minister: ‘Nuclear weapons only bring disaster’
Prior to the talks, British Defense Secretary Liam Fox said the preference was for a “negotiated solution, not a military one,” but added: “We will not look away or back down.”
And US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that it was Iran, not the West, which had to restore trust in the peaceful nature of its nuclear efforts, and in Geneva should “firmly, conclusively reject the pursuit of nuclear weapons.”
Iran’s foreign minister appeared to do just that on Monday, repeating Iran’s rejection of nuclear weapons and calling for the Middle East to be a nuclear-free zone. Speaking in Athens, Manouchehr Mottaki said: “Nuclear weapons do not solve any problem. They only bring disaster.”