Iran is willing to negotiate with the U.S. as long as Washington has "fair… (Paul Zinken / European Pressphoto…)
WASHINGTON — Six world powers and Iran agreed to hold talks on Tehran's disputed nuclear program this month in Kazakhstan in the latest attempt to avoid a military confrontation over the issue.
After three months of negotiations, Iran's national security council reached agreement with the office of the European Union's foreign policy chief and point person for the six world powers, Catherine Ashton, for a meeting Feb. 26.
The six nations — Russia, China, France, Germany, Britain and the United States — have been urging Iran to accept limits on a nuclear program that many countries fear is aimed at developing a weapon. Iran insists that its program is intended only for peaceful purposes, but the government is eager to win relief from international sanctions that are crushing its economy.
A senior U.S. official said that the agreement was positive but that "we'll be looking to see if they are prepared to engage seriously."
Several Western diplomats were cautious about prospects for the talks, saying they had seen little from the Iranians to indicate they are willing to bring their program in line with the requirements of the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency.
"I hope the Iranians are not misjudging the determination of the West," said one person close to the talks. Describing himself as "not too optimistic," he said the Western countries are prepared to further tighten sanctions, which have been moving toward a total trade embargo.
Diplomats acknowledge that if the two sides don't make progress within the next few weeks there may be a long interruption in the talks because of the approach of Iran's presidential election in June.
Several senior Iranian officials have been quoted in recent days as questioning Western motives in the negotiations, a sign that some officials in Tehran may not be in a mood to make a deal.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the six nations would offer in the Kazakhstan meeting an "updated and credible" version of a deal they offered during three sessions last spring.
The proposal would probably include demands that Iran halt production of medium-enriched uranium, which can be quickly converted into bomb fuel, and convert its existing stockpile of the material to reactor fuel or export it, said Cliff Kupchan, an analyst with the Eurasia Group consulting firm. The six powers also probably would demand that Iran close its underground nuclear facility at Fordow and halt deployment of a class of powerful new centrifuges that could help it develop a bomb-making capability quicker.
The Iranians, for their part, will be demanding significant relief from sanctions in exchange for even partial concessions, he said, a condition the Western countries would probably reject.
Ray Takeyh, an Iran specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, said another complication is that Iran's nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, may resist a deal because it would expose him to criticism from Iranian political rivals and set back his reported ambitions to be president.
The Obama administration and Israel have threatened a military attack against Iran if no other way is found to prevent it from obtaining a bomb.