Reporting from Geneva — Iran signaled in talks with six powers on Monday that it was willing to enter a new round of discussions on its disputed nuclear program, but it stopped short of any deeper commitments, Western diplomats said.
Iranian officials said they wanted to dispel what they characterized as misunderstandings about their program, which many countries believe is aimed at developing nuclear weapons. Tehran has insisted it seeks to develop atomic energy for peaceful purposes, and it gave no indication that it was willing to scale back the program, said the diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the two-day talks are ongoing.
Though Iran's position was a sign of progress, it was about the minimum the six powers could accept after a 14-month stalemate. Pressed by Washington, the U.N. Security Council tightened economic sanctions against Iran in June. The U.S. and European Union added their own tougher sanctions the following month. The U.S. and its allies have threatened further action if Iran does not commit to serious negotiations.
The six powers are the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany. China and Russia agreed to watered-down U.N. sanctions, but are unhappy about the tougher measures imposed by the U.S. and EU.
Even Iran's commitment to talk further was not necessarily final, a European diplomat said. Another European official said he was "not optimistic" that a continuation of talks would be scheduled.
Another official close to the talks said Iran's speeches Monday were more serious than "monologues for domestic consumption," but added that the second day of the gathering would determine whether there was a basis to go forward.
Diplomats were encouraged that Iran appeared willing to discuss its nuclear program, despite earlier public statements that it would talk only about other sources of friction.
Delegation head Saeed Jalili used his opening remarks to condemn attacks in Iran last week that killed one nuclear scientist and wounded another. Tehran has blamed the attacks on Israel or the West. Iran also wanted to talk about what it fears are threats to destabilize its government.
But the nuclear issue "was the dominant one," the European diplomat said.
The six-powers delegation was led by Catherine Ashton, the EU's senior foreign policy official. The U.S. delegation was led by William J. Burns, the State Department's No. 3 official.
Unless Western officials get more definitive commitments from Tehran than was evident Monday, they may be accused of again falling for Iranian delaying tactics.
Iran has been talking with world powers since 2003 about its nuclear program, and on several occasions appeared close to accepting limits, before backing away.
In October 2009, it appeared the six countries had an agreement with Iran to temporarily send much of Iran's enriched nuclear material out of the country. But the deal collapsed amid disagreements among Iranian officials.
Though Iranian officials have insisted that the economic sanctions would not force them to curb their nuclear program, they have appeared interested in finding a way to scale them back. Some analysts have speculated that Iran might ask for a suspension of sanctions for the duration of talks.
Ray Takeyh, a former Iran advisor to the Obama administration, said the Iranians had an interest in talking, but "they want a process that's inconclusive." Their promises to continue talks should be viewed cautiously because their negotiating style is to avoid saying no while also failing to commit fully, said Takeyh, who is with the Council on Foreign Relations.
"They say, 'Many things are possible' and 'We can examine this,' raising hopes that often aren't realized," he said.
Obama administration officials have said that if the two-day summit fails to yield progress, they will continue to pressure Tehran.
Many U.S. lawmakers, Israeli officials and some Arab states are nervous that Iran will soon have the ability to build a nuclear bomb.
U.S. officials have been hoping that China, which has a huge stake in the Iranian economy, will play a key role in persuading Iran to yield.
President Obama, in a talk Sunday night with Chinese President Hu Jintao about North Korea, urged China to join the other five powers in stressing that Iran should negotiate limits on its nuclear program.
Special correspondent Julia Damianova in Vienna contributed to this report.