Reuters: France, Britain and Germany resume low-level talks with Iran this week about its nuclear programme, but EU diplomats expressed little optimism that talks with Iran’s hardline government would yield a breakthrough. By Louis Charbonneau
BERLIN (Reuters) – France, Britain and Germany resume low-level talks with Iran this week about its nuclear programme, but EU diplomats expressed little optimism that talks with Iran’s hardline government would yield a breakthrough.
Wednesday’s meeting in Vienna will be the first time European Union diplomats hold direct talks with Tehran since August, when the EU trio broke off two years of negotiations with Iran to protest its decision to resume uranium processing work at a mothballed nuclear plant at Isfahan.
Diplomats from the so-called ‘EU3’, speaking on condition of anonymity, were not optimistic about Wednesday’s meeting with Iran, which the EU and United States fear is developing atomic weapons under cover of a civilian atomic energy programme.
Iran says its nuclear plans are limited to peaceful electricity generation. But it hid potentially arms-related technology from the U.N. nuclear watchdog for 18 years.
One diplomat said the Vienna meeting, confirmed by an EU spokeswoman in Brussels, would be confined to “exploratory talks” and the most likely outcome a decision on whether or not to meet again in January.
“Both sides will be sizing each other up after everything that has happened in the last few months,” the diplomat said.
Another said: “It’s going to be an opportunity to see really whether there’s anything left to talk about.”
Iran’s decision to resume uranium conversion, a precursor to the most critical phase of the nuclear fuel cycle, uranium enrichment, is not the only thing casting a shadow on the talks.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s call for Israel to be “wiped off the map” and his declaration that the Holocaust was a myth have only increased Western fears about Iran’s nuclear plans.
One EU3 diplomat said Ahmadinejad’s comments had the strongest impact on Germany and would prompt Berlin to toughen its stance. In contrast to Paris and London, Berlin has long balked at the idea of referring Iran’s nuclear dossier to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions.
“I don’t think you’ll see the Germans being soft on Iran anymore. In that sense, these comments about Israel have changed things,” the diplomat said, adding that Germany’s new Chancellor Angela Merkel seemed determined to step up the pressure on Iran.
Germany said last week it was looking into whether it would be possible to impose travel restrictions on Ahmadinejad for his public denial of the Holocaust, a crime in Germany.
Also, Gernot Erler, a state secretary at Germany’s Foreign Ministry said a “trade embargo on Iran could not be ruled out.”
Tehran has accused the EU and United States of trying to rob it of its sovereign right to a full nuclear programme.
Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani said he hoped the Europeans were serious about negotiating.
“The most important thing is that we hold serious talks. The level of discussions is not important. If we feel they are constructive, we will continue them,” Iran’s official IRNA news agency quoted him as saying.
Until recently the Europeans had hoped Iran would consider a Russian proposal that would allow it to continue processing uranium but would move enrichment to Russia.
This would enable Iran to exercise its right to enrich uranium, a process that produces fuel for power plants or weapons, while providing what the EU3 calls “objective guarantees” that Tehran will not secretly produce nuclear arms.
But Iran has said repeatedly that it wants to enrich uranium on its own soil, not in Russia or anywhere else. Larijani has also said Tehran wants to resume research and development (R&D) on centrifuges, machines that enrich uranium by spinning it at supersonic speeds.
“The Iranians have made it clear that the Russian proposal is unacceptable and they only want to discuss centrifuge R&D ” an EU3 diplomat said.
If Iran begins centrifuge work, “we will end the negotiations and push for Security Council referral,” he said.
Other diplomats said they hoped Iran would see reason and at least agree to think about something like the Russian proposal.
(Additional reporting by Paul Taylor in Brussels, Francois Murphy in Vienna, Madeline Chambers in London and Parisa Hafezi and Christian Oliver in Tehran)