Are Iran nuclear program talks back on?

Iran’s foreign minister said Friday that his country welcomes a proposal from the European Union’s top diplomat to resume talks on its nuclear program. The invitation is for November, but no date set.

Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki attends a news conference in Tehran on Saturday.

A mid-November return to the diplomatic table is looking increasingly likely for Iran and the group of world powers seeking to stop the Iranian regime from building a nuclear bomb from its atomic energy program.

No dates have been set, but Iran’s foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, said Friday that his country welcomes a proposal a day earlier by the European Union’s top diplomat, Catherine Ashton, for the two sides to meet in Vienna for three days of talks in mid-November.

Mr. Mottaki’s positive words concerning a resumption of talks that broke off a year ago were the strongest indication yet – amid a spike in speculation since August – that a return to the negotiating table may be imminent.

Talks between Iran and the group of powers known as the P5 + 1 – the United Nations Security Council’s five permanent members, the United States, Russia, China, France, and Great Britain, plus Germany – broke off last October after Iran rejected a deal for moving much of its stockpiled enriched uranium out of the country. Since then, the Security Council has approved a fourth round of economic sanctions against Iran as a means of drawing it back to talks on its nuclear program.

The statement by Lady Ashton, the EU’s high representative for security and foreign policy, was issued shortly after Ashton met in Brussels with US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Secretary Clinton was in Brussels briefly, at the end of a swing through the Balkan countries, to preview a meeting Friday of the group of countries formed two years ago to assist Pakistan with economic development and security issues.

Ashton and Clinton did not mention Iran in brief remarks Thursday focused on the Pakistan meeting. Mottaki also made his comments in Brussels, where he, too, is taking part in the “friends of Pakistan” meeting.

The Obama administration has said all along that the toughened economic sanctions against Iran are meant to draw it back to the negotiating table and find a diplomatic solution to differences over its advancing nuclear and weapons-delivery (missiles) capabilities. The White House has indicated that it would also like to reach a point where it could engage constructively with Iran on Afghanistan, where the two countries are seen to have a mutual interest in thwarting a return of the Taliban.

But critics of the Obama diplomatic approach say the nuclear talks have only served as a cover for Iran to continue making progress in its nuclear program – progress that backers of the nuclear negotiations and detractors alike believe is putting Tehran closer to a nuclear weapons capability.

Any return to talks must also cross the hurdle of divergent Iranian conditions for resuming negotiations.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in September, when he attended the UN General Assembly session in New York, that Iran is ready to return to talks on its nuclear program. But he has also set conditions for a return to the negotiating table, including a demand that the circle of countries involved in any nuclear talks be broadened.

Turkey and Brazil are two countries that tried to salvage the faltering talks last October by offering their own proposal for addressing the issue of Iran’s growing stockpile of enriched uranium. Those two, plus other developing countries including India and South Africa, have opposed sanctions as a way to coerce Iran back to the table.

President Ahmadinejad has also said that any countries involved in future talks be required to state the nature of their relations with Iran – friendly or hostile. He also says any participant should get a seat at the table only upon offering its view about Israel’s undeclared nuclear arsenal.

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