A desire for substantive progress, says EU

Crucial talks between Iran and the six global powers, which could lift the threat of another military conflict in the region and guarantee unimpeded energy flows from the oil rich Gulf countries, have, after a gap of 15 months, resumed on a positive note.

The first round of talks in the morning on Saturday, which began with a plenary session, ended with a whiff of cautious optimism. Part of the reason for hope, however restrained, was that neither side seemed to have overloaded the dialogue, in its starting phase, with an ambitious agenda. Western diplomats were quoted as saying a show of seriousness by Iran to pursue dialogue to defuse tensions, driven by concerns that Iran could be developing nuclear weapons, would itself be a marker of success. The modest objective of the first round appeared to be the launch of a sustained dialogue — a process during which harder questions could be later addressed.

European Union (EU) foreign policy chief Catharine Ashton, who is leading the six global powers to the talks with Iran in Istanbul, suggested in her remarks, that after the false starts of the past, the West would be happy with baby steps of progress. “I hope what we will see today is the beginnings of a sustained process,” said Ms. Ashton.

Fresh sanctions

Ms. Ashton had met her Iranian counterpart Saeed Jalili over dinner on Friday night. Iran's semi-official, Fars News Agency is reporting that Mr. Jalili's deputy, Ali Baqeri had, also on Friday, met representatives to the talks from Russia and China — two countries who have been reluctant to impose fresh sanctions on Iran, and have stood firmly opposed to a war to retard the Iranian nuclear programme. Iran is engaging the five permanent members of the Security Council — U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France — as well as Germany in the talks. The two sides had last met also in Istanbul in January 2011 for talks which failed to yield any positive momentum.

After the morning session had concluded, Michael Mann, Ms. Ashton's spokesman, said “there is a positive atmosphere,” as well as “desire for substantive progress”.

Some analysts point out that there are reasonable chances of the dialogue in the future making headway, because a road-map in principle appears to have emerged in the behind-the-scenes discussions. On Friday, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pointed out that Russia and the U.S. “have concrete ideas on how to move stage-by-stage and on condition of mutuality that is on the action for action basis. Iran makes a step and the Group of Six meets halfway to the Iranian concerns”. Russia has earlier proposed a step-by-step mechanism, where each step taken by Iran to clarify its nuclear status would be met with the incremental lifting of sanctions. The statements coming out of Tehran suggesting “new initiatives” had also lifted the mood ahead of the talks, Mr. Lavrov observed.

The severity of the mounting sanctions that target Iran may have been a factor in persuading Iran to adopt a more moderate course, said some western diplomats — a view that Tehran summarily rejects.

Despite the low expectations at the outset, the West is hoping to demonstrate progress in the near future by persuading Iran to allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to visit Parchin — a military site where Iran is suspected to have carried out high-explosives testing with nuclear weapon applications. Iran's interlocutors are also keen that Iran ceases to produce uranium enriched to a 20 per cent level, and exports its existing enriched uranium stocks to a third country.

Incremental success

Observers say that any incremental success will strengthen the hand of the Obama administration, which appears keen to counter Israeli pressure demanding a military solution.

It could also help reduce pressure on oil prices because of the reduced Iranian threat to the Strait of Hormuz, through which large supplies of oil and gas, sourced from the Gulf pass.

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