Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the man with the
final say on all matters of state in the Islamic Republic, declared
again on Monday that talks between Tehran and six world powers "will
not lead anywhere" — while also reiterating that he did not oppose
the delicate diplomacy.
Hours later a senior U.S. administration official also tamped down
expectations, telling reporters in the Austrian capital that it will
be a "complicated, difficult and lengthy process" and "probably as
likely that we won't get an agreement as it is that we will.
It is the first round of high-level negotiations since a November 24
interim deal that, halting a decade-long slide towards outright
conflict, has seen Tehran curb some nuclear activities for six
months in return for limited relief from sanctions to allow time for
a long-term agreement to be hammered out.
The stakes are huge. If successful, the negotiations could help
defuse many years of hostility between Iran — an energy-exporting
giant — and the West, ease the danger of a new war in the Middle
East, transform power relationships in the region and open up vast
new possibilities for Western businesses.
The talks — expected to last two or three days — began at around 11
a.m. (0500 ET) on Tuesday at the United Nations complex in Vienna.
They were later due to move to a luxurious city center hotel where
the chief negotiators were staying.
A spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine
Ashton, overseeing the talks on the powers' behalf, said bilateral
meetings between delegations were under way.
Western officials said the talks were aimed at agreeing on how the
negotiations would proceed in coming months and what subjects would
have to be addressed. "We are basically setting the table for the
negotiations," the senior U.S. official said.
Ashton spokesman Michael Mann told reporters: "Nobody is expecting a
final agreement in this round but we are hoping for progress ... the
aim is to create a framework for future negotiations."
Despite his public skepticism about chances for a lasting accord
with the West, Khamenei made clear Tehran was committed to
continuing the negotiations between Iran and Britain, China, France,
Germany, Russia and the United States.
"What our officials started will continue. We will not renege. I
have no opposition," he told a crowd in the northern city of Tabriz
on Monday to chants of "Death to America" — a standard reflexive
refrain since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
During a decade of fitful dialogue with world powers, Iran has
rejected allegations by Western countries that it is seeking a
nuclear weapons capability. It says it is enriching uranium only for
electricity generation and medical purposes.
Tehran has defied U.N. Security Council demands that it halt
enrichment and other proliferation-sensitive activities, leading to
a crippling web of U.S., EU and U.N. sanctions that has severely
damaged the OPEC country's economy.
Khamenei's approval of serious negotiations with the six powers
despite the skepticism he shares with hard-line conservative
supporters, diplomats and analysts say, is driven by Iran's
worsening economic conditions, analysts say.
Another major factor was the Iranians' overwhelming election last
year of a moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, dedicated to relieving
Tehran's international isolation.
[to top of second column]
CURBING URANIUM ENRICHMENT
The goal of the talks for the United States and its European allies
is to extend the time that Iran would need to produce enough fissile
material for a viable nuclear weapon.
For that goal to be achieved, experts and diplomats say, Iran would
have to limit enrichment to a low concentration of fissile purity,
deactivate most of its centrifuges now devoted to such work, curb
nuclear research to ensure it has solely civilian applications and
submit to more intrusive monitoring by U.N. anti-proliferation
Khamenei and other Iranian officials have repeatedly made clear that
such reductions of its nuclear capacities would be unacceptable. The
trick will be devising compromises that the domestic hardline
constituencies of each side can live with.
Western governments appear to have given up on the idea, enshrined
in a series of Security Council resolutions since 2006, that Iran
should completely shut down the most controversial aspects of its
program — all activities related to the enrichment of uranium and
production of plutonium.
Diplomats privately acknowledge that Iran's nuclear program is now
too far advanced, and too much a cornerstone of Iran's national
pride, for it to agree to scrap it entirely.
But while Iran may keep a limited enrichment capacity, the West will
insist on guarantees that mean any attempt to build a nuclear bomb
would take long enough for it to be detected and stopped, possibly
with military action.
Israel, which criticized the November deal as an "historic mistake"
as it did not dismantle its arch-enemy's enrichment program, made
its position clear ahead of the Vienna talks.
"We are giving a chance for (a) diplomatic solution on condition
that it provides a comprehensive and satisfactory solution that
doesn't leave Iran with a nuclear breakout capability," Strategic
Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz told Israeli radio.
"In other words, that it doesn't leave (Iran) with a system by which
to enrich uranium by means of centrifuges, nor any other
capabilities that would permit it to remain close to a bomb,"
At the Vienna talks, senior officials from the six powers were to
meet with an Iranian delegation led by Foreign Minister Mohammad
Javad Zarif and his deputy Abbas Araqchi.
The talks will be the first in what is expected to be a series of
meetings in the coming months.
While cautioning they will take time, the U.S. official said
Washington does not want them to run beyond a six-month deadline
agreed in the November deal. The late July deadline can be extended
for another half year by mutual consent.
(Additional reporting by Justyna Pawlak and Fredrik Dahl in Vienna;
Allyn Fisher in Jerusalem; editing by Mark Heinrich)
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.