GENEVA – Iran and six world powers concluded talks Tuesday with an agreement to reconvene early next year, indicating Tehran may be willing to address concerns about its nuclear program. But Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned that unless they lift U.N. sanctions the six face failure in the next round.
Diplomats from delegations at the table with Iran said Tehran made no commitments to talking about U.N. Security Council demands that Tehran freeze uranium enrichment -- which has both civilian and military uses.
"We didn't get anywhere on substance," said one of the officials. "It was an exchange of views."
A senior U.S. administration official, in a similarly sober assessment, said: "Our expectations for these talks were low, and they were never exceeded."
Iran's chief negotiator, Saed Jalili, also sought to dampen expectations.
"I am telling you clearly and openly that halting uranium enrichment will not be discussed at the Istanbul meeting," he told reporters.
But the diplomats said Jalili did not object when the six powers, the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, brought up concern over enrichment during two days of talks that ended at midday Tuesday. The fact that the Iranians did not dismiss such international worries led to the decision to agree to a second round, said the three officials, who asked for anonymity because the information was confidential.
"We are encouraged that there will be a follow-on meeting" in January, U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters in Washington. He said that although there was no formal one-on-one meeting between the U.S and Iran, the two sides had a "brief, informal" talk on topics he did not specify.
In Berlin, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said that -- even if the talks yielded no surprises --"a beginning was achieved."
The senior U.S. administration official said "an increasing amount of international isolation" might be contributing to possible Iranian willingness to engage. He also asked not to be named in exchange for talking about the closed meeting.
Ahmadinejad set the bar high for the success of the Istanbul talks, saying it hinged on whether the U.N. Security Council agreed to lift five resolutions and four sets of sanctions against his country, imposed over its refusal to freeze enrichment. That is something the five permanent Security Council members are unlikely to even consider, suggesting his comments were meant for domestic consumption.
"If you come to talks with sincerity, loyalty to the law, friendship and respect ... and cancel resolutions, sanctions and some restrictions that you imposed, it will definitely be helpful," state TV's website quoted Ahmadinejad as saying.
"But if you again come with deception and animosity, not respecting the rights of the Iranian nation ... the response of the Iranian nation will be the same as you've received until today. This response will be very regretful."
He also scoffed at the suggestion that United States with its huge nuclear arsenal and its allies were afraid that Iran could develop nuclear arms, saying "this claim is a lie and deception," in comments quoted by state TV.
But comments by a former Iranian diplomat who defected to the West added to concerns.
Mohammad Reza Heydari, who resigned in January from his post as Iranian consul in Norway said that during his contacts with Iran's revolutionary guards "it was clearly said that Iran was concentrating on two objectives ... the first was to build the range of surface-to-surface missiles, the second was to get a nuclear weapon with North Korea's help."
The comments at a Paris think tank conference come amid rising international concerns that North Korea, which has already staged atomic tests, is cooperating with Iran on its nuclear program.
Heydari said that from 2002 to 2007, when he headed the Iranian Foreign Ministry's office for airports, he saw many technicians from North Korea travel to Iran.
"I witnessed repeated round-trips of North Korean specialists and technicians -- given that I was right there at the border -- who came to collaborate on the Iranian nuclear program," he said through a translator.
Based on information from "friends and contacts" still in the know about the visits by North Korean technicians, Heydari said he is "100 percent certain" they are continuing.
A U.S. intelligence assessment -- published among the flood of classified State Department memos obtained by WikiLeaks -- concluded that Iran received advanced North Korean missiles capable of targeting Western European capitals and giving Iran's arsenal a significantly farther reach than previously disclosed.
In Geneva, Jalili denied reports of cooperation between Iran and North Korea, telling reporters they were "totally fabricated.".
In separate comments to journalists, the European's Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said agreement on a new meeting was reached after "substantive talks."
"We and Iran agree to a continuation of these talks in late January in Istanbul," said Ashton, speaking on behalf of six.
Ashton had previously rejected Tehran's preference for a meeting in Istanbul, where Iran would have Turkish allies on the sidelines, and agreement on that venue appeared to be a concession to the Islamic Republic.
She declined to go into details saying only: "We recognize Iran's rights but insist it fulfills its obligations." While the six powers accept Iran's right to develop nuclear power they insist that Tehran meet U.N. Security Council demands.
At the Istanbul meeting "we plan to discuss practical ideas and ways of cooperating toward the resolution of our full concerns about the nuclear issue," Ashton told reporters shortly after the second day of talks ended around noon.
Jalili confirmed the timing and venue of the planned talks, while serving notice that his country would not deviate from its insistence that it has a right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes.
"We reject the idea of talks under pressure," he told reporters.
While avoiding the mention of international concerns over Iran's nuclear program he said his country was ready to "sit down and talk about common concerns over important international issues, security concerns, economic concerns and so forth."
International worries are great because Tehran developed its enrichment program clandestinely and because it refuses to cooperate with an IAEA probe meant to follow up on suspicions that it experimented with components of a nuclear weapons program -- something Iran denies.
Officials from the six powers said Jalili declined to address their worries on enrichment and related issues, focusing instead on generalities and perceived mistakes made by the West in its treatment of Iran over the nuclear issue.
Still, "the vast majority of the talks was about the nuclear issue," said one of the officials.
"Jalili gave sense he understands international concerns," he said. "It's clear he's heard our concerns."