U.S., Allies Meet With Iran On Nuclear Program

Representatives from the U.S. and five other world powers outlined their concerns about Iran's nuclear program at a meeting in Switzerland with an Iranian delegation. U.S. officials held the highest-level direct talks with the Iranians in years.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In Switzerland today, representatives from the U.S. and five other world powers outline their concerns about Iran's nuclear program and talks with an Iranian delegation. And Americans held the highest level direct talks with the Iranians in decades. Back in Washington, President Obama gave a cautious assessment.

President BARACK OBAMA: Today's meeting was a constructive beginning, but it must be followed with constructive action by the Iranian government.

BLOCK: NPR's Eric Westervelt is following events in Geneva. He sent this report.

ERIC WESTERVELT: The urgency of the talks grew following last week's disclosure that Iran is constructing a second Uranium enrichment site. After the day long talks here, the European Union's chief foreign policy official Javier Solana said the Iranians today agreed to allow inspectors to see that site within the next few weeks. Solana said the tenor of today's talks was positive and more productive than the last meeting more than a year ago.

Mr. JAVIER SOLANA (Chief Foreign Policy Official, European Union): The delegation came knowing there was a different setting than in previous meetings. I said, and I repeat, it is the first time this meeting takes place with the United States' government fully engaged.

WESTERVELT: A U.S. official here says Under Secretary of State William Burns met with Saeed Jalili, the top Iranian official attending in a rare one-on-one talk during a lunch break. It was the highest level contact between the two countries in nearly three decades. The U.S. official says the two discussed the nuclear issue, human rights and U.S. citizens detained in Iran. In the end, today was an important meeting about meetings. The six major powers and Iran have agreed to talk again by the end of this month. In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it a productive day, but warned against delaying tactics by Iran.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of State): I think we are on it. We've always said we would engage, but we're not talking for the sake of talking. We are not involved in a process just to say that we can check a box on process. We want to see concrete actions and positive results. And I think today's meeting opened the door, but let's see what happens.

WESTERVELT: U.S. and European diplomats said they reiterated to the Iranians that the freeze for freeze offer from July of 2008 is still on the table. That idea is for Iran to freeze its uranium enrichment program in exchange for the suspension of U.N. sanctions. The EU's Solana said the Iranians have not yet responded to the renewed offer.

This summer's disputed Iranian election and harsh crackdown on protesters that followed have complicated the Obama administration's diplomatic overtures to the Islamic Republic. Some on the right have criticized the White House for opening channels to an increasingly isolated and, some believe, illegitimate regime.

Mr. SHAHRAM CHUBIN (Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) Saying that you shouldn't engage a regime that has bloody hands. The trouble with that is of course that that's a recipe for not dealing with the nuclear issue.

WESTERVELT: Shahram Chubin is a Geneva-based senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He believes the deep internal risks in Iran certainly make diplomatic efforts like today's talks more difficult. But Chubin thinks the domestic trouble could also be an asset, as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears weakened.

Mr. CHUBIN: He's not supported at home. The elite are divided. The society is polarized. And at the same time there's international pressure on him. Because of the - because of what he did, there's a lack of trust which has been built up on the nuclear issue, accentuated by its repression and its vicious activities of his own citizenry.

WESTERVELT: Still, others fear that a domestically weakened Ahmadinejad will be less likely to compromise on the nuclear issue.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Geneva.

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Obama Sets Deadline For Iranian Plant Inspection

Iran must grant international inspectors access to its newly disclosed nuclear enrichment facility within two weeks, President Obama said Thursday after Iran pledged to allow inspections soon.

"Talk is no substitute for action," Obama said at the White House after talks ended earlier in the day in Switzerland. "Our patience is not unlimited."

The president's statement came a few hours after a senior European envoy said Iran had pledged to open the plant to inspectors, possibly within a few weeks.

Javier Solana, the EU's top foreign policy official, also confirmed that Iran and six world powers, including the United States, will hold a new set of talks this month on international concerns about Tehran's nuclear program and other issues raised by the Islamic republic. He made the comments at a meeting near Geneva of officials from the seven nations.

In another development at Thursday's Geneva meeting, the U.S. and Iran sat down for bilateral talks during a break, a significant departure from past U.S. policy of not negotiating with Tehran.

U.S. spokesman Robert Wood says U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns met with Saeed Jalili, Tehran's chief negotiator.

Western diplomats said the two discussed issues during a lunch break at Thursday's talks. Wood, and two Western diplomats who demanded anonymity for discussing the confidential information, declined to elaborate to The Associated Press.

It is the first known direct high-level meeting between Washington and Tehran in years of attempts to persuade Iran to freeze its uranium enrichment program. Iran says the program is peaceful, but some Western nations fear it could eventually produce nuclear weapons.

Obama said Thursday that Iran must follow through on its promises of transparency in its nuclear program. He said Iran also must take concrete steps to show that the program is for peaceful purposes and not an effort to pursue nuclear weapons.

The president said the United States is prepared to move toward bringing more pressure on Iran if it does not carry out its international obligations.

Diplomats from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the United States, Britain, China, France and Russia — plus Germany met Thursday with Iran's top nuclear negotiator.

Before the meeting, a senior U.S. official in Geneva called the talks the beginning of an "extraordinarily difficult process."

Tensions over Iran's nuclear program rose higher last week with the revelation that Iran has been secretly building an underground plant to enrich uranium. President Obama called that facility "a direct challenge" to the nuclear nonproliferation system and said it shows that Iran is on "a path that is going to lead to confrontation."

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismissed that charge as "baseless," repeating his government's assertions that Iran's nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.

On Wednesday, Ahmadinejad said that Tehran viewed the talks as a test of the major powers' willingness to respect Iran's rights. Iranian officials have said the talks should include a wide range of issues, including the Israeli-Palestinian question and changes in the structure of the U.N. that would distribute power among more countries.

From NPR and wire service reports

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