ISTANBUL – After years of failure, Iran and the six world powers may finally make some progress on nuclear negotiations when they meet again Saturday if each side shows willingness to offer concessions the other seeks.
But even if the two sides find enough common ground, they may have a tougher time in any potential second round. That's when the six powers will likely seek further commitments from Tehran to reduce fears that it could use its uranium enrichment program to make the fissile core of nuclear missiles.
Iran has proposed Baghdad as a possible venue for a second round and a European diplomat said Friday the six could agree to meet there in May if there were enough progress in Istanbul. He demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly reveal the confidential information.
As it comes to the table in Istanbul, the West's strongest hand is linked to its sanctions on Iran, penalties that have been tightened in recent months as the U.S. and EU have taken aim at Iran's main cash cow: oil. Tehran in turn, may dangle the prospect of halting high-level uranium enrichment, a process that would shorten the path to making warhead material should it opt for that route.
Diplomats from some of the six powers, who agreed to discuss meeting strategy with The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity, said rolling back existing sanctions would be premature and too much of a reward if Iran offers no more than discussions about stopping its enrichment of uranium to 20 percent.
Other sanctions are still unfolding. U.S. moves to punish any bank, company or government that does business with Iran's central bank, its main conduit of oil trade, are to take full effect June 28, just three days before a full oil embargo from the European Union kicks in.
The European diplomat said it was unlikely Western powers would use the talks to offer the possibility of putting the oil penalties on hold if Tehran shows readiness to compromise on 20-percent enrichment and other demands put forward Saturday by the six -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.
But the U.S. and the E.U. would be free to review them independently outside of the talks framework and suspend any new penalties now in the works if the nuclear dialogue showed signs of progress.
Officially, the international community's long-term goal remains what it was when nuclear negotiations began eight years ago -- persuading Tehran to stop all uranium enrichment and thereby relieve fears that it will use that program to create the fissile core of nuclear warheads. Tehran has long denied any weapons-related nuclear goals.
"They assert that their program is purely peaceful," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday. "We want them to demonstrate clearly in the actions they propose that they have truly abandoned any nuclear weapons ambition."
In Tehran, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, head of the parliamentary committee on foreign relations, said the talks in Istanbul will be "hard and heavy." In a telephone interview, he reiterated Iran will not step back from its nuclear activities.
But a reality check dictates that both sides may be ready to deal. Officials from some of the countries that will be at the table with Iran say that even a sign from Tehran that it is ready to lift its taboo on talking about enrichment may be enough for more talks that will attempt to focus on specifics.
Indirectly confirming the strategy of Iran's interlocutors, German Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer told reporters in Berlin the focus of Saturday's talks was "to pick up the negotiating threads, to identify themes that would be conducive to continuing the dialogue."
Iranian officials have suggested scaling back on uranium enrichment while continuing to make nuclear fuel and ahead of the talks, chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili vowed to present new initiatives, without specifying what they might be.
"There have been signals that suggest to us they are more serious than the last time," said Michael Mann, spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, noting that Jalili's letter to Ashton setting up the talks indicated Iran now was ready to talk about its enrichment program.
Past talks failed after Tehran refused to even discuss the topic, saying it has a right to enrichment to create nuclear fuel.
Washington has warned that Saturday's meeting may be the last chance to try to persuade Iran to curtail enrichment at the negotiating table. The other option -- a military strike by Israel -- would risk drawing in the United States, for Washington a horror scenario even if were not an election year.
The diplomats said the six powers planned to meet informally late Friday to work on a joint negotiating position, and Ashton, the facilitator for the six countries, was to talk separately over dinner with Iran's Jalili.
An official on one of the Western delegations who demanded anonymity for discussing the confidential preparations, described the six as an "extraordinarily unified group," whose members share "the same objectives and the same principles in our approach."
But there were some concerns about Russia and China -- strategic and economic partners of Iran that have acted as a past brake on harsh sanctions.
An Iranian official, who also demanded anonymity because his information was confidential, told AP that senior Iranian delegation member Ali Bagheri will meet the heads of the Russian and Chinese delegations in the Iranian consulate in Istanbul on Friday afternoon. A Chinese delegation subsequently came and went after an approximately 90-minute stay, followed by a Russian delegation that stayed 40 minutes.
Since 2002, Iran has weathered growing economic and political penalties to turn an experimental program into uranium enrichment that harnesses more than 9,000 machines. It moved last year from turning out just nuclear fuel grade material to additional higher-level enrichment at 20 percent that would allow it to make weapons-grade uranium more easily and quickly.
Adding to concerns, it has moved that higher-level operation into a bunker carved into a mountainside that may be safe from even the biggest bunker busting bombs.
Diplomats from the Western group said the six may float the closure of that subterranean site Saturday but added they did not expect Iran to comply. Such requests may instead be deferred for a second round in a few weeks, should there be agreement to meet again, they said.