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Six world powers, Iran agree to more nuclear talks

By Paul Richter, Tribune Washington Bureau –

BAGHDAD — Six world powers and Iran announced Thursday after a second contentious round of negotiations over Tehran’s disputed nuclear program that they intend to continue their talks, though they have so far produced few concessions.

Diplomats for the two sides said they would meet again in Moscow on June 18 for a third round of talks, which are aimed at ensuring that Iran does not use its civilian nuclear program to develop a bomb-making capability. But the group of world powers appeared some distance from its goal of getting Iran to suspend key nuclear activities.

Iranian negotiators who appeared eager to do business during a meeting a month ago in Istanbul, Turkey, sniped publicly at the so-called P5 Plus One group’s negotiating proposals and tried to begin discussions of peripheral subjects — a tactic Western officials have said shows they are not serious about nuclear talks.

“These were difficult talks,” said a senior Obama administration official, describing some exchanges as intense. “We are far apart.”

But officials insisted that the talks were not about to break off and that the Iranians were committed to negotiating over the program. They described the Iranian approach as one indicating a country that is increasingly desperate to ease Western sanctions that are battering Iran’s economy.

“It is clear that we both want to make progress and that there is some common ground,” Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, told reporters when the meetings were concluded after 11 hours. “However, significant differences remain.”

The limited results may expose the Obama administration and the other governments to criticism from conservatives, Israelis and other critics who are impatient to end a program that may be close to reaching bomb-making capability. Last month, Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the group’s first meeting with Iran, saying the world powers had given Tehran a “freebie.”

U.S. officials said they had never expected to accomplish in this second meeting an interim deal that would have required Iran to halt production of 20 percent enriched nuclear material, which can be converted to use in nuclear bombs with relative ease.

On Wednesday, negotiators for the P5 Plus One group laid down their goals, which include halting Iran’s production of 20 percent enriched uranium, surrender of the country’s existing stockpile of the nuclear material, and an agreement to dismantle an underground site near Qom where enrichment is taking place. Iranian officials complained that the proposal was “unbalanced” because it didn’t sufficiently reward Iran for concessions.

Iranian diplomats countered with a five-point plan that they said was intended to address the country’s grievances.

This plan wasn’t released publicly. But diplomats said the key point was a demand that the world powers recognize its right to enrich uranium — a demand the world powers refused.

The Iranians also sought to bring up their grievances about regional issues, such as what they see as Western meddling in Syria and Bahrain.

Neither side gave any ground, diplomats said. They said they planned a series of intense meetings and planning sessions before the next meeting. But one diplomat said they would go into that session with no fixed agenda.

Though U.S. officials had no bilateral meetings with the Iranians, the senior administration official said that Saeed Jalili, the chief Iranian negotiator, at one point approached the ranking U.S. official, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, to exchange pleasantries. “We’re getting to know each other better,” the official said.

Jalili said, in an appearance after the talks concluded, that they had been worthwhile but suggested that the world powers’ refusal to recognize Iran’s right to enrichment was a serious obstacle to progress.

He said that if that right was recognized, “we will of course welcome some offer to cooperate on.”

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