GENEVA — Iran and six world powers haggled Monday over the terms of negotiations that the West hopes will limit Iranian nuclear activities that could be used to make atomic weapons.
As the meeting in Geneva — their first in a year — broke for lunch, there were signs that both sides were at least willing to listen, even though they may remain far part on how deeply the talks should tackle concerns about Iranian nuclear activities.
Several officials from the six powers at the meeting — the U.S., Russia, Britain, France, Germany and the European Union — said the Iranian delegation had reacted calmly when told the group was still seeking a commitment from Tehran to stop uranium enrichment, which can make both fuel for reactors and the fissile core of nuclear arms.
Iran has insisted previously that the topic of enrichment was not up for negotiation.
Tehran says it does not want atomic arms, but as it builds up its capacity to make such weapons, neither Israel nor the U.S. have ruled out military action if Tehran fails to heed U.N. Security Council demands to freeze key nuclear programs.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton "thoroughly condemned" the assassination last week of a prominent Iranian nuclear scientist and the wounding of another, said one official, after chief Iranian negotiator Saed Jalili said the attacks had burdened the atmosphere of the talks.
Ashton also met Jalili in the foyer of the conference center before the talks began. As the doors closed to reporters Monday morning, the two had joined the other delegations sitting around a light brown oval table, with flags of their nations behind them.
Although other non-nuclear issues had also been mentioned, Ashton and others focused on the need to concentrate on Iran's nuclear program, said the official who — like another who agreed to discuss what went on inside the meeting — did so on condition of anonymity.
A series of bilateral meetings were planned after lunch, which featured duck with olives, char fillet with sage, rice pilaf and deserts. Those meetings could include a one-on-one between Jalili and U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns, who heads the U.S. delegation, said the officials.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki sounded a note of optimism as the talks began, telling reporters in Athens that "the countries that are participating today in the talks on the nuclear program have the room to follow a policy to resolve the issue."
On Sunday, Iran announced it had delivered its first domestically mined raw uranium to a processing facility, claiming it was now self-sufficient over the whole enrichment process.
Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran and the country's vice president, said Iran had for the first time delivered domestically mined raw uranium to a processing facility — allowing it to bypass U.N. sanctions prohibiting import of the material.
Salehi said the delivery proved that the mysterious bombings which targeted the Iranian scientists would not slow the country's progress.
Iran acquired a considerable stock of yellowcake a uranium powder, from South Africa in the 1970s under the former U.S.-backed shah's original nuclear program, as well as unspecified quantities of yellowcake obtained from China long before the U.N. sanctions.
Western nations said last year that Iran was running out of raw uranium and asserted that Tehran did not have sufficient domestic ore to run the large-scale civilian program it said it was assembling.
"Given that Iran's own supply of uranium is not enough for a peaceful nuclear energy program, this calls into further question Iran's intentions and raises additional concerns at a time when Iran needs to address the concerns of the international community," said Mike Hammer, spokesman of the U.S. National Security Council.
But Salehi denied that local stocks were lacking and said Iran was now self-sufficient over the entire nuclear fuel cycle — from extracting uranium ore to enriching it and producing nuclear fuel.
Since Iran's clandestine enrichment program was discovered eight years ago, Iran has resisted both rewards — offers of technical and economic cooperation — and four sets of increasingly harsh U.N. sanctions meant to force it to freeze its enrichment program.
Nations have a right to enrich domestically and Iran insists it is doing so only to make fuel for an envisaged network of reactors and not to make fissile warhead material. But international concerns are strong because Tehran developed its enrichment program clandestinely and because it refuses to cooperate with an IAEA probe meant to follow up on suspicions that it experimented with components of a nuclear weapons program — something Iran denies.
Israel has threatened to attack Iran, even though Israel is believed to have stockpiled more than 200 nuclear weapons and it is not a member of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Western officials have urged Tehran to address international concerns about its nuclear activities.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said it was up to Iran to restore trust about its nuclear intentions, urging it to come to Geneva prepared to "firmly, conclusively reject the pursuit of nuclear weapons."
But for Iran, the main issues are peace, prosperity — and nuclear topics only in the context of global disarmament.
"Iran has not and will not allow anybody in the talks to withdraw one iota of the rights of the Iranian nation," President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said before the talks.