Monday, December 18, 2017

New nuclear talks with Iran said to be imminent

The United States and five other world powers are preparing for possible new talks with Iran. There are signs that the country's leaders might be willing to meet as early as next week to discuss scaling back nuclear activities in return for future sanctions relief, the Washington Post reported Friday. The paper cited unnamed U.S. and European officials briefed on the matter.

The six powers have agreed on a new package of inducements to be offered to Iran if it agrees to freeze key parts of its nuclear program, according to the officials. Iran rejected a similar deal earlier this year, but U.S. officials said they were modestly hopeful that Tehran's position had softened under the strain of international sanctions.

The talks would be the first high-level negotiations over Iran's nuclear program since June, offering at least the prospect of a thaw in a standoff that has grown increasingly tense in recent months. The apparent movement on the diplomatic front came amid reports that Iran had agreed to concessions in a separate dispute with U.N. nuclear officials over access to an Iranian base allegedly used for nuclear weapons research.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has been prodding Iran for months to grant its inspectors access to the Parchin military base, where Iranian scientists are suspected of having conducted nuclear weapons research a decade ago.

After two days of talks, IAEA officials said the two sides were close to an agreement on a plan for resolving disputes over Iran's past nuclear research. A final agreement allowing inspectors to visit Parchin could be signed next month, Herman Nackaerts, head of the agency's safeguards department, told reporters in Vienna.

There was no confirmation from Tehran about pending talks with world powers. On Friday, a member of Iran's nuclear negotiating team expressed skepticism about a possible deal with the six-nation bloc: the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia. "Personally, I am not optimistic," Mostafa Dolatyar told reporters during a visit to India. But he added: "Everything could be subject to negotiation."

Three U.S. and European officials briefed on the preparations said Iranian negotiators were discussing a timetable for new talks, which might be held in Istanbul, Turkey. Initial meetings could begin as early as next week, though they are more likely to start after New Year's Day, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatically sensitive negotiations.

U.S. officials said the purpose would be to test Iranian willingness to halt certain nuclear activities as an interim step, or a "confidence-building" measure, to ease international fears that Tehran is secretly developing nuclear weapons. In exchange, Iran would be offered technical assistance with its civilian nuclear program and modest sanctions relief, including the lifting of a ban on the purchase of aircraft parts, the officials said.

The measures could be the starting point for a future agreement that would set permanent limits on Iran's nuclear activities in exchange for rolling back economic sanctions.

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