- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 1, 2009

UPDATED:

GENEVA | A senior U.S. official urged Iran Thursday to take “concrete and practical steps” to address international concerns about its nuclear program during the highest-level meeting between the two countries in three decades, diplomats said.

The rare one-on-one talks between William J. Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, took place on the sidelines of a meeting of world powers in Geneva to discuss Tehran’s nuclear pursuits.

Mr. Burns “addressed the need for Iran to take concrete and practical steps that are consistent with its international obligations and that will build international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of it program,” said State Department spokesman Robert Wood.

Diplomats said the bilateral talks were substantive and took place during a lunch break between two scheduled plenary sessions at an 18th century villa in Geneva.

Mr. Burns, who held the same position in the Bush administration, took part in a similar meeting in Geneva in July 2008, but he was there only as an observer.

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who chaired the seven-nation session, said the participants agreed to “an intensified dialogue in the coming weeks” and will meet again before month’s end.

A separate expert meeting in Vienna on Oct. 18 will address the possibility that lowly enriched uranium in Iran would be taken to a third country for further enrichment before being returned to Iran. Although the United States, France and Russia have all said they would consider hosting that process, Russia is the most likely candidate.

Along with the United States, the group negotiating in Geneva known as P5+1, includes permanent U.N. Security Council members Britain, France, Russia and China, as well as Germany.

The group is trying to persuade Iran to suspend enriching uranium, which it insists is only for civilian use but the West suspects it is intended for building a nuclear weapon. Tehran has not responded to a offer of political and economic incentives the group presented in April, and the West has threatened more sanctions.

“Like our partners, we are committed to meaningful negotiations to resolve what are growing international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program,” a senior U.S. official said Wednesday. The formal sessions will be “interspersed with informal breaks, which will allow each of us an opportunity both for consultations amongst the 5+1 group, but also sidebar conversations with the Iranians.”

To the surprise of many diplomats and observers, Iran did not withdraw from Thursday’s meeting in spite of revelations last week that it has built a second nuclear plant that remained secret until Western intelligence agencies discovered it several months ago.

“The recent revelation of the clandestine facility at Qom has strengthened the sense of purpose and unity amongst the 5+1 group,” said the senior U.S. official who asked not to be named under standard diplomatic rules.

Even though Russia and China have resisted talk of more sanctions, the West hopes the Qom plant and its previous secrecy might persuade Moscow and Beijing to adopt a tougher line with Tehran.

Mr. Solana said that Mr. Jalili had promised to allow international inspections in Qom as soon as in the next “couple of weeks.”

“While the focus of the discussion was on Iran’s nuclear program, both sides had a frank exchange on other issues, including human rights,” Mr. Wood said.

Mr. Jalili described the meeting as “good,” but did not address questions about any of the nuclear issues during a press conference.

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