World powers to meet with Iran on gridlocked nuclear talks

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The six world powers that have been trying to come to an agreement with Iran over its disputed nuclear program are having a face-to-face meeting Tuesday with Tehran’s chief nuclear negotiator -- but not because there’s been any progress toward a deal.

Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief and the point person for the six powers group, will meet Tuesday in Istanbul, Turkey, with Iran’s Saeed Jalili to discuss the status of their gridlocked talks, diplomats said.

More specifically, Ashton will ask Jalili whether Iran is ready to replace its earlier proposal -- termed a “nonstarter” by the United States -- with an offer that might finally get talks moving.

“This is a chance for Lady Ashton … to see what the Iranians are thinking,” Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, told reporters. “We’re going the extra mile to offer them a face-to-face meeting to see what’s up.”


In discussions last spring, Iran said it would agree to halt production of its medium-enriched uranium if the six countries would recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium to a low level, and would grant the Islamic Republic relief from sanctions. But the offer fell far short of the demands of the six countries -- Britain, France, Germany, United States, Russia and China.

The group’s political directors made no progress with Iran at their last meeting, held in Moscow in June. Since then, the two sides have held lower-level technical meetings. But diplomats said the lower-level meetings haven’t brought the two sides closer together.

Diplomats from the Western countries believe that over time the U.S. and EU sanctions may do enough damage to the Iranian economy that Tehran would be more agreeable to compromise. But in the short term, the diplomatic impasse has created an awkward political situation, especially for President Obama. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared the talks a failure and is campaigning publicly to build pressure on Obama to set a firm “red line” or deadline for Iran, beyond which it would risk a U.S. military onslaught.

Some Iranian officials have said that Obama will be more flexible after the presidential election –- suggesting that they don’t intend to offer anything substantial until that time.

Nuland said the six countries will discuss Iran’s position next week when they meet at the annual United Nations General Assembly session in New York.


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-- Paul Richter

Photo: Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, delivers a speech during the plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on Sept. 11. Credit: Patrick Seeger / European Pressphoto Agency