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Iran nuclear talks: Why there's hope for progress this time

A big question is whether the West will pressure Tehran to stop enrichment all together, or just prove that the Iran nuclear program is purely peaceful.

By Staff writer / April 13, 2012

In this February 15 file photo, claims to show Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, second left, being escorted by technicians during a tour of Tehran's research reactor center in northern Tehran, Iran.

Iranian President's Office/AP

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Istanbul, Turkey

As Iran nuclear talks resume on Saturday, diplomats say progress is possible, despite a 15-month hiatus punctuated by an escalation of sanctions, covert war, and talk of a military strike.

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Sitting down on one side of the table in Istanbul will be Saeed Jalili, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, whose job is to not budge on uranium enrichment, but convince six world powers that Iran does not want nuclear weapons, is able to prove it, and that sanctions should be lifted.

On the other side of the table will be Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief, representing the so-called P5+1: the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany. Her job – backed up by a host of sanctions that are crippling Iran's economy – is to convince Iran to severely limit its nuclear program, and lay it open to intrusive inspections.

In years past, that same equation has failed several times. But prior to these talks, both sides have signaled a new readiness to deal. And both sides see themselves as negotiating from a position of strength.

"The question is: What is the red line for the P5+1? Is it enrichment? Or a nuclear weapon?" asks Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former member of Iran's nuclear negotiating team now at Princeton.

"If it is enrichment, there would never be a peaceful solution – never. Ultimately, confrontation is very much possible," says Mr. Mousavian. "If their red line is nuclear weapons, definitely very soon they can reach to an amicable solution, because this is also for Iranians a religious red line."

Iran: Trust 'takes a long time to build'

Unlike previous rounds, both sides say they expect tomorrow's talks to be only the first step, with a second round in Baghdad, perhaps, in a few weeks.

"I don't think they'd be coming if they weren't serious," says a European diplomat in Istanbul. "They've already made signals that are more positive."

Among them was a rare article by Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, published in the Washington Post today, in which he repeated Iran's opposition to nuclear weapons, and called on all sides to "make genuine efforts to reestablish confidence and trust."

The "dialogue must be seen as a process rather than an event," Mr. Salehi wrote. "A house can burn to the ground in minutes but takes a long time to build. Similarly, trust can easily and rapidly be broken, but takes a long time to build."

The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Fereydoun Abbasi Davani, also stated last week that Iran was only enriching uranium to 20 percent in order to fuel a reactor for medical purposes. That level could be stopped when the need was met, and material even turned back to the usual 3.5 percent.

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