By Al Pessin, VOA
GENEVA - Iranian negotiators led by their foreign minister met the United Nations contact group Thursday in Geneva for talks that could be decisive in easing tensions over its nuclear program.
This series of talks started with what was described as a “good meeting” over breakfast between Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif and the European Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who chairs the UN team.
Then, the full delegations from Iran, the five permanent Security Council members, Germany and the EU got together for a 45-minute session. They will be followed by smaller group meetings throughout the day.
Zarif said after the morning session that "the talks went well," according to Reuters.
"We are beginning to get to more detailed discussions this afternoon," he said. "I'm hopeful that we can move forward... We are making progress but it's tough."
Talks enter "serious phase"
An EU spokesman says the talks are entering "a serious phase.”
A senior U.S. official says the two sides are coming to understand what a “first step” would look like, after just one round of formal talks and one experts meeting since the new Iranian government took power in July.
Officials are not providing details of an Iranian proposal presented here last month, but the senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the basic idea is to pause Iran's nuclear program, perhaps for six months, to provide time for negotiations on a long-term agreement.
In return, the official said the international community would ease some sanctions but not alter what she called the core sanctions regime.
The international community is seeking changes to Iran's nuclear program, and more transparency, to guarantee that it does not lead to the production of nuclear weapons.
Iran says it has no intention of developing such weapons, but parts of its program go beyond what experts say is needed for nuclear power and research, and that it could be only months away from producing enough highly enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb.
Zarif said last week that Iran's new government is working to dispel those concerns.
“We believe that even a perception that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons is detrimental to our security, so we will do our best in order to remove that perception,” he said.
After the first round of talks, the chief U.S. delegate, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, told VOA's Persian News Network the issues are difficult and fueled by decades of mistrust, but she indicated the two sides are now working toward the same goal.
"What I have seen in Geneva is a very different approach. It is a practical approach where each country of the P5+1 and Iran fight very hard for the interests of their country. That is what we are required to do," she said. "But at the same time [we] are trying to solve a problem that we really want to solve.”
But the Obama administration is fighting a rear-guard action against some members of Congress, who want to add sanctions against Iran just as these talks are showing promise, a move officials say could destroy any chance of a diplomatic solution.
At the same time, Iran's relatively moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, also has hardliners to contend with, who are likely to oppose any concessions on the nuclear program.
Iran expert and former State Department adviser Suzanne Maloney, now at the Brookings Institution, is skeptical that there is any overlap between what the two sides will accept, particularly based on a recent speech by Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“While he has sought to defend the positions of the negotiators publicly, he has indicated, I think, a very strong skepticism that they'll be able to produce the kind of deal that he would accept," Maloney said.
"There does appear to be some distance between what the Iranians say publicly they want and need, in terms of sanctions relief, and what the administration seems to believe they can get away with offering,” she said.
Bridging that gap is the significant challenge the negotiators are facing here this week. They may not finish the job during these two days of talks, but they acknowledge they need to deliver a workable agreement soon, with only very limited amounts of patience on both sides.
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