Step By Step: Working With Iran

Negotiators for Iran and six world powers say talks on Iran's nuclear program Saturday represent a constructive beginning, and the sides agreed to meet again next month. As NPR's Peter Kenyon reports, U.S. officials say there's still a long way to go before the world can be satisfied with Iran's claims that it's only enriching uranium for peaceful purposes.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

To Istanbul now, where negotiators for Iran and six world powers say yesterday's talks on Iran's nuclear program represent a constructive beginning. They agreed to meet again next month in Baghdad. U.S. officials note there is still a long way to go before the world can be satisfied with Iran's claims that it's enriching uranium only for peaceful purposes. But both sides say they're willing to try a step-by-step approach to resolving the issue. NPR's Peter Kenyon has more.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Participants said the tone of this year's meeting was a big improvement over last year's talks, which ended in frustration and hostility. By contrast, the two lead negotiators, Catherine Ashton for the international side and Saeed Jalili for Iran, had what was described as a very positive three-hour dinner Friday night, followed by useful talks yesterday. One reason the cooperation level seemed higher was because no substantive concessions were demanded of either side. The goal, said Ashton, was to establish an agreed framework for moving on to the tough issues in future meetings.

CATHERINE ASHTON: I have been very clear in my discussions with Dr. Jalili, and he has understood and agreed with that, that we're looking for the next meeting to move us forward in a very concrete way.

KENYON: So on the specifics of Iran's nuclear program and whether or not it includes a weapons component, everything remains to be determined. But on another level, these talks were seen as an effort to focus more attention on diplomacy and less on the constant speculation about a possible military strike on Iran and its consequences. On that level, this effort to launch an ongoing process may hold promise, as Ashton suggested in her remarks.

ASHTON: This is a process that to be successful will have to be sustained. It will begin by finding ways in which we can start to build the confidence of the international community, to recognize what needs to happen for the obligations to be fulfilled, and that's what we will seek to start properly in Baghdad at the end of May.

KENYON: Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili echoed Ashton's assessment, framing it as always in the context of what he calls Iran's inalienable rights, including the right to enrich uranium.

SAEED JALILI: (Through Translator) Today we witnessed a positive approach from the other side, and we consider it a step forward. As I said, the language of threats doesn't work with the Iranian people, but today we saw an approach that could be fruitful.

KENYON: Jalili stressed that Iran would never bow to economic or political pressure from abroad. But in looking ahead to the next meeting in Baghdad, he did briefly acknowledge that Tehran is looking for a way to get punitive international sanctions lifted.

JALILI: (Through Translator) In this new approach, the confidence of the Iranian people must be won. One issue of importance, of course, is the removal of sanctions.

KENYON: For the past few years, the west has been piling on more and more sanctions, and recently they have begun to strike at two critical economic targets - Iran's energy and banking sectors. Even more punishing, EU sanctions are due to kick in this summer, shortly after the Baghdad talks. The international side was insistent that easing sanctions would come only after concrete concessions by Iran. A senior U.S. administration official said dialogue is not sufficient, and as of today Washington has no expectation of lifting any sanctions. That view was echoed by Ashton's spokesman Michael Mann, who spoke with reporters during a break in the talks.

MICHAEL MANN: No. I mean, our sanctions are in law, and they remain in law. And the idea of the sanctions is that sanctions are under constant review, but can only be eased on the basis of concrete changes on the ground.

KENYON: Between now and May 23rd, deputies to Ashton and Jalili will meet to work out details of what will be discussed in Baghdad, which will be the first test of whether diplomacy can replace belligerent rhetoric in the Iran nuclear dispute. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

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