Obama says Iran must take 'concrete steps' on nuclear issues

The talks in Geneva were historic, but some experts say Iran gained prestige without having to concede much.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
President Barack Obama delivers a statement regarding Iran on Thursday, in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House in Washington.

The results of a full day of talks between Iran and major world powers including the United States were enough for Washington – and Tehran – to envision a second round before the end of the month. Still, the Obama administration remains cautious about the negotiations' ultimate prospects.

"This was a constructive beginning, but it must be followed by constructive action by the Iranian government," President Obama said in a brief White House statement.

Reiterating the policy of engagement with adversaries that he ushered into the White House, Mr. Obama added that "we are not interested in talking for the sake of talking," and he said "Iran must take concrete steps to show its [nuclear] program is peaceful."

Simply for Iran to accept the nuclear issue on the talks' agenda is an important victory for the US and its allies, some analysts say. But they add that other factors suggest Iran will also be pleased with the first day's results.

What did Iran get?

"These were historic negotiations. I'm happy about that," says David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) in Washington. "But in a funny way, I'd say Round 1 went more for [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad than for Obama."

Why? Iran got high-profile international talks without much mention of a suspension of its uranium-enrichment program, and the inspections Iran agreed to for a recently disclosed nuclear site won't happen right away.

"This is really just the beginning of the beginning," Mr. Albright says.

Obama and other US officials suggested Thursday they had received at least some indications that Iran was starting to take the kind of "concrete steps" they seek.

Tehran told officials at the talks it has accepted international inspections of a nuclear facility it only declared last week. In addition, Mr. Ahmadinejad suggested his country's openness to considering foreign-supplied fuel for Iran's nuclear reactors.

Open door to engagement?

Those two developments, along with the constructive demeanor of Thursday's talks, led US officials to conclude a door had opened to potentially fruitful engagement.

"It was a productive day but the proof of that has not yet come to fruition," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters in Washington after receiving a telephone report of the day from Assistant Secretary William Burns, the US representative at the one-day talks in Geneva.

"I will count it as a positive sign when it moves from gestures and engagements to actions and results," she added.

Going into Thursday's talks, the US had said it wanted Iran to accept "in weeks, not months" inspections of a nuclear facility near the holy city of Qom that the Iranians only declared last week. In his statement, Obama said the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed ElBaradei, would visit Tehran in "coming days" to set up the inspections.

That may sound good, the ISIS's Albright says, but he notes that any delay allows Iran "to destroy evidence" and move installations to render inspections at least less useful. "So that's not a victory for the US at all," he says.

More broadly, the US and its partners at the table – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany – wanted indications that Iran is open to halting its uranium-enrichment activity, which Western powers believe is aimed at producing fuel for nuclear weapons.

The US appeared to get results on both points.

Iran wants to buy enriched uranium

Ahmadinejad said Iran's nuclear scientists "are ready to negotiate with countries willing to sell us enriched uranium." Tehran had rejected an earlier offer from Russia to supply the fuel Iran would need to run its reactors, including one Russia is building in Bushehr.

Again, Albright says Iran's gesture may be less than meets the eye. "If Iran doesn't accept a framework for getting to suspension [of uranium enrichment], the US has failed," he says.

Thursday's talks included a rare US-Iran bilateral meeting on the margins of the lunch.

Mr. Burns told Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, that the international community expects Iran to live up to its obligations to demonstrate that its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes, according to Robert Wood, deputy State Department spokesman.

Burns, who had participated in the last international talks with Iran on its nuclear program in July 2008 as an observer, also raised other non-nuclear issues, including human rights, Mr. Wood said.


Is Iran hiding other secret nuclear sites?

Iran may have built a shadow infrastructure to provide the raw material for building nuclear weapons. More here.


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