Chances are slim for breakthrough at Iran nuclear talks

Iran and six other nations will hold their first talks in 14 months Thursday in Geneva, but despite the participation of a senior U.S. diplomat, chances for a quick breakthrough appear bleak, especially after last week’s revelation of a previously covert Iranian nuclear facility.

In its first face-to-face negotiations with Iranian officials, the Obama administration will press Tehran to allow unfettered access to the facility buried under a mountain near the holy city of Qom and to take other steps to alleviate concerns over its nuclear work, a senior U.S. official said.

However, U.S. and European diplomats are skeptical after years of frustrating attempts to engage Iran that the talks will lead anywhere, at least anytime soon.

“I think it’s safe to predict this is going to be an extremely difficult process,” the senior official said, briefing reporters on the condition of anonymity.

In Washington, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Wednesday that “I don’t doubt that there could be additional meetings” with Iran, but not to the exclusion of consequences if Iran doesn’t cooperate.

“There’s a specific agenda and specific problems that need to be dealt with, and if they’re not dealt with responsibly by the Iranians … stronger measures will be developed and implemented to ensure that they do,” Gibbs said. “I think it’s important now for the Iranians to take this opportunity, sitting across the table from the P5-plus-1 partners, and demonstrate for the world what their intentions are.”

He was referring to the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council ? the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China ? plus Germany.

The Geneva talks have been given new urgency by Iran’s belated disclosure of the Qom site, designed to house centrifuges for enriching uranium, and by European intelligence agencies that reportedly have concluded that Iran has restarted work on designing a nuclear warhead.

The United States, Britain and France say they’ll push for severe new sanctions against Iran if it doesn’t back down. Of the other three nations that will join in Thursday’s session, however, Germany is less enthusiastic, Russia consistently has opposed sanctions and China has a deepening economic relationship with Iran, a key oil supplier.

Iran says that its nuclear work is civilian, aimed at generating electrical power. It’s also given no sign recently that it will accept limits on that work in exchange for political, security and economic incentives that the six powers have offered.

Before leaving for Geneva on Wednesday, Iran’s chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, said the talks were an “opportunity and a test” for the world powers, the Reuters news agency reported.

U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns will be at the table along with Jalili. During the Bush administration, Burns attended a largely fruitless round of talks with Jalili in July 2008, but he was largely a silent participant. This time, the White House has approved Burns’ full participation, and Thursday’s schedule includes time for a potential one-on-one U.S.-Iranian meeting.

The exact location of the talks is, at least in theory, a secret. Originally supposed to take place at a Geneva hotel, they reportedly have been moved to a villa outside the city to avoid a media circus.

The negotiations are the result of a vague offer from Iran earlier this month ? the six powers accepted it within days ? that made no mention of the nuclear issue and offered to talk about anything but.

“Drawing lessons from the past and not insisting on futile and pointless paths that have proved to be of no avail is the prerequisite for … success,” the five-page document said.

Iran long has sought security guarantees. It sees itself as living in a tough neighborhood with several countries that already have nuclear weapons ? including India, Pakistan and Israel ? and U.S. troops on its flanks in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama administration officials say Burns will be authorized to discuss such issues, but only as part of a negotiation that centers on the nuclear issue.

“They may not, but we will,” Gibbs said, referring to the U.S. intention to raise the issue of the Qom facility. Iran notified the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, of the site’s existence last week, apparently after learning that Western intelligence agencies had been watching it.

The senior U.S. official said that an existing offer to Iran still stood for a “freeze for freeze,” meaning a halt to new sanctions on Iran in return for its suspension of enriching uranium that could be used for nuclear arms.

U.S. officials think that President Barack Obama’s public revelation of the Qom site last Friday caught the Iranians off-guard and gives Washington momentum with which to pressure Tehran. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev softened his opposition to more sanctions on Iran after Obama privately briefed him Sept. 23 on the intelligence.

“Essentially, it’s been burned,” a second senior U.S. official said of the site, arguing that it no longer can be a part of a covert nuclear-weapons program. The official spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Congress is moving to impose harsher U.S. sanctions. The chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., said he and the committee’s top Republican, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, were drafting new sanctions legislation.

Dodd said the bill would target Iran’s energy sector because of the country’s dependence on imported gasoline, expand the Iran Sanctions Act to include insurance underwriters and financial institutions, and broadly ban direct Iran-U.S. imports and exports except for food and medicine.

However, U.S. officials are aware that Iran has proved a master at drawing out negotiations while continuing nuclear development. Small concessions from Tehran now could undercut the momentum toward more sanctions.

(c) 2009, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.