ISTANBUL, Turkey — Iran and six world powers took a modest step toward resolving their dispute over Tehran’s nuclear program, agreeing to negotiate their differences and to meet again next month in Baghdad.
The much-anticipated daylong discussion, however, appeared to leave the two sides far from even an interim agreement on how to overcome the dispute, which has raised fear of a spiraling war in the Middle East. Yet Western officials said Iran’s agreement to even talk should be counted as progress, as the Islamic Republic has repeatedly walked away from attempts to force it to negotiate curbs on its nuclear program.
Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, called the meeting “positive and useful,” while Iran’s chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, praised the approach of the group of six world powers and said the meeting had produced “a step forward.”
One former Obama administration advisor on Iran said the agreement on further talks could help reduce tension over the issue, which has been rising for months as the West has tightened sanctions and Israel has threatened a bombardment.
“This proved an opportunity for everyone to take a step back from the menacing atmosphere that was around,” said Ray Takeyh, who is now with the Council on Foreign Relations. “That’s true about Iran, the U.S. and the party that was not at the talks: Israel.”
In a meeting in Istanbul 15 months ago, Jalili refused to discuss Iran’s nuclear program, throwing the group’s efforts into disarray.
The group, made up of the United States, France, Britain, Germany, China and Russia, is concerned that Iran’s nuclear program may be aimed at developing bomb-making know-how, a charge Tehran denies.
The group’s modest goals for the meeting reflect its view that it needed to approach the Iranian regime cautiously on the issue and that a demand for quick action could be counterproductive. Yet the U.S. and its allies could come under attack from critics who believe that swift action is needed to halt Iran’s production of enriched uranium, which can be used as bomb fuel if enriched to high levels.
President Obama has been trying to get the Iranians to the negotiating table while fending off the Israeli threats to bomb Iran to prevent it from gaining a capability that Israel sees as an existential threat.
Iran, now under intense economic pressure from Western sanctions, had floated the idea before Saturday’s meeting of halting its production of 20%-enriched uranium, which is closer to a state that makes it suitable for a bomb. That proposal looked to some analysts like a potential key factor in working out a compromise on the issue.
But diplomats said that although ideas were raised at the meeting, none were discussed in any depth. The focus, rather, was on getting the Iranians to express enough interest in entering negotiations so that the May 23 meeting in Baghdad could be scheduled.
Jalili said nothing at a news conference about any willingness to halt production of enriched uranium. Instead, he emphasized that his country would insist on its right to a nuclear program, as guaranteed under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
The two sides said they would look to the treaty as a basis for their negotiations. The Iranians like it because it guarantees access to civil nuclear power to all countries; the West likes it because it requires members to submit to international monitoring and bars activities that could lead to a bomb-making capability.
Though Jalili praised the group’s approach, he declined to engage directly with U.S. officials at the meeting, which was held in Istanbul’s municipal conference center. U.S. officials had not asked Jalili directly for a meeting but had let it be known that they were open to such an encounter.
A senior administration official linked the Iranians’ new desire for talks to the pressure of sanctions. But skeptics have warned that the Iranians simply want to run out the clock while they continue to move close to a bomb-making capability.
The meeting’s limited accomplishment will put more pressure on the Obama administration to wrest some tangible concessions from the Iranians soon.
But the senior administration official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the discussions, cautioned against raising “anybody’s expectations that large steps will be taken” at the May meeting. The official acknowledged that although the Iranians were signing on to another session, “the environment has not been fully tested yet.”
The official said the Iranians could not waste time because of their need to lift the Western sanctions, which have cut Iranian oil sales, raised import prices and slashed the value of its currency by about half.
The official also said the Western governments were not about to suspend tough new sanctions that are to take effect at the end of June unless the Iranians made major concessions.
The group met with Jalili and three colleagues first in a joint gathering in which representatives of each country gave the Iranians their views about resolving the nuclear program. Members of the six-nation group have different views on the issue, and China and Russia have strongly resisted the West’s efforts to force Iran’s hand with sanctions.
But Western diplomats said that all six were united in their approach Saturday.
Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.