GENEVA, Switzerland - In talks with six major powers Monday, Iran signaled that it was willing to enter a new round of international discussions on its disputed nuclear program but stopped short of any deeper commitments, Western diplomats said.
In a daylong session, Iranian officials instead said they wanted to dispel what they believe are misunderstandings about their program, which many countries believe is aimed at bomb-making. Iran has insisted it seeks to develop nuclear energy and gave no indication that it might be willing to scale back the program, said the diplomats, who asked not to be named because the talks were continuing.
While the Iranians' statements about another round of talks were a sign of progress, they were about the minimum the six powers could accept after a 14-month stalemate. The countries slapped Iran with a series of economic punishments last summer and have threatened to tighten them if Iran does not commit to serious negotiations about the program.
Even Tehran's commitment to talk further was not necessarily final, a European diplomat said. Another European official said he was "not optimistic" that more talks would be scheduled.
The two sides laid out "quite familiar positions," according to another official close to the talks. He said the Iranian speeches were more than "monologues for domestic consumption" but added that Tuesday's session would determine whether there was enough agreement to merit more meetings.
The six powers - the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France, and Germany - are scheduled to continue their talks for a half day Tuesday.
Diplomats were encouraged that Iran appeared willing to discuss its nuclear program, despite some earlier public statements that Tehran would talk about other sources of friction but not its nuclear efforts.
Iran did raise other issues, with delegation head Saeed Jalili using his opening remarks to condemn attacks last week - which Tehran has blamed on Israel or the West - that killed one Iranian nuclear scientist and wounded another. Iran also wanted to talk about what it fears are threats to destabilize its government.
But the nuclear issue "was the dominant one," the European diplomat said.
The six-powers delegation was led by Catherine Ashton, the European Union's senior foreign-policy official. The U.S. delegation was led by William Burns, the State Department's No. 3 official.
The session began with a three-hour morning meeting, in which the six powers laid out their case for Iran to cooperate, and the Iranians offered their response. In the afternoon, Iranian officials met in bilateral talks with a number of countries, before gathering again in a group session.
Western officials arrived for the meetings with low expectations. But unless they succeed in getting more definitive commitments from the Iranians than was evident Monday, they may be accused of again falling for Tehran's delay tactics.
Iran has been talking with world powers since 2003 about its nuclear program, and on several occasions appeared close to accepting limits before backing away. In October 2009, it appeared the six powers had an agreement with Tehran to temporarily send much of Iran's enriched nuclear material out of the country. But the deal later collapsed amid disagreements among Iranian officials.
While Iranian officials have insisted that the economic sanctions would not force them to curb their nuclear program, they have appeared interested in finding a way to scale back the sanctions. Some analysts have forecast that Iran could ask for a suspension of sanctions for the duration of the future discussions.
Ray Takeyh, a former Iran adviser to the Obama administration, said the Iranians had an interest in talking, but "they want a process that's inconclusive."
Obama administration officials have said that if the two-day summit fails to yield progress, they will continue to pressure Tehran in hopes that the government will eventually yield.
In a show of unity, the United States, Japan, and South Korea said Monday they would not resume nuclear talks with North Korea until it stopped "provocative and belligerent" behavior and took steps to roll back its nuclear-arms program.
"They need to demonstrate
a seriousness of purpose in ending their provocations," Secretary
of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said after meeting with Japanese and South Korean foreign ministers.
The meeting aimed to show a stern response to North Korean actions, including a deadly shelling of a South Korean island last month and its announced expansion of a uranium- enrichment capability.
Clinton and her counterparts also called on China to do more to steer North Korea toward a moderate path.
China, a traditional backer of North Korea, has called for an emergency session of the six-party talks, with the United States, Japan, South Korea, Russia, China, and North Korea.
Clinton said that was not enough. "Resumption of the six-party talks will require the [North] to make sincere efforts to improve relations with the [South] as well as taking concrete steps to demonstrate a genuine commitment to complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization," the U.S.-Japan-South Korea statement said.
- Associated Press