WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Thursday called landmark nuclear talks with Iran a constructive beginning, then challenged Tehran to match words with deeds by giving international inspectors “unfettered access” to a previously secret uranium enrichment plant within two weeks.
“Talk is no substitute for action,” Obama said at the White House after talks ended earlier in the day in Switzerland. “Our patience is not unlimited.”
If Iran fails to live up to its promises of cooperation, “then the United States will not continue to negotiate indefinitely and we are prepared to move toward increased pressure,” the president warned. His reference to pressure was an allusion to tougher U.N. and other sanctions already under discussion.
But Obama said that if Iran follows through with concrete steps “there is a path to a better relationship” with the United States and the international community.
“Going forward, we expect to see swift action,” Obama said. Several times he called on Iran to take “concrete steps,” signaling his intention to keep pressure on Iran until it follows through on promises.
Obama’s comments were sharper and more specific than those earlier in the day by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who said the talks had “opened the door” to potential progress on clarifying Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
But, striking a cautious tone, Clinton said in Washington it remained to be seen whether the Iranians would act decisively to address concerns about their intentions.
The U.S. concern, shared by many other nations, is that Iran may be using its declared nuclear facilities — which it asserts are intended only for peaceful purposes — as cover for building a nuclear weapon.
Obama said Iran should act in two areas to alleviate those concerns, and he implied that the country was on the right track.
The first is what Obama called transparency. He said Iran must open the doors within two weeks to a newly disclosed facility near the city of Qom that is intended to enrich uranium to produce nuclear fuel. The senior European Union envoy at the talks, Javier Solana, told reporters that based on Iran’s response on Qom he expected that they would grant access to international inspectors in “a couple of weeks.”
The second area where Obama urged Iranian action is building international confidence in the peaceful nature of the nuclear program. In this regard he said Iran had agreed in principle to ship low-enriched uranium to a third country to further process the material for use in a research reactor in Tehran.
“We support Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear power,” Obama said. “Taking the step of transferring its low-enriched uranium to a third country would be a step toward building confidence that Iran’s program is in fact peaceful.”
A senior U.S. official speaking to reporters in Geneva said Russia has agreed to perform the further processing of low-enriched uranium from Iran, and that France would then fabricate it into fuel assemblies for use at the Tehran research reactor, which is under international inspection.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss diplomatically sensitive aspects of Thursday’s talks, said the potential advantage of that arrangement would be to significantly reduce Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium, which itself is a source of worry among countries that fear Iran intends to use it in a nuclear weapons program.
The official said the Iranians tentatively agreed to this arrangement, subject to working out details at a meeting in Vienna on Oct. 18 with experts of the International Atomic Energy Agency, a U.N. body.
Thursday’s meeting, at a villa on Lake Geneva, marked the first time the United States and Iran have engaged in direct talks since the 1979 Iranian revolution. In April 1980 the U.S. severed formal diplomatic relations with Tehran.
During a break in Thursday’s talks between Iran and six world powers — the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany — the lead U.S. negotiator, Undersecretary of State William Burns, had a rare face-to-face meeting with the Iranian delegate.
Officials said Burns amplified the U.S. view of Iran’s responsibilities under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and urged Iran to take swift action to resolve the cases of three Americans who have been detained in Tehran since their arrest in late July for illegally entering the country from Iraq.
State Department spokesman Ian C. Kelly said Burns also raised the case of former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who went missing in Iran in 2007 while working as a private consultant.
Earlier, Clinton said that at the talks “there were a number of issues raised, put on the table, and now we have to wait and see how quickly — and whether — Iran responds.” She did not specify the issues or speak in detail about how Iran should respond.
Clinton said she got a rundown on the substance of the talks in a telephone call from Burns.
“It was a productive day, but the proof of that has not yet come to fruition, so we’ll wait and continue to press our point of view and see what Iran decides to do,” Clinton said.
Asked whether the U.S. strategy of offering more direct dialogue with Iran was paying off, she said more than gestures and discussions are required.
“I will count it as a positive sign when it moves from gestures and engagements to actions and results,” she said.