Iran meets the West in Geneva for nuclear talks

GENEVA – The U.S. and five other world powers began high-stakes talks Thursday with Iran to demand a freeze of its nuclear activities, with a senior U.S. official saying Washington is open to rare one-on-one talks with Iranian diplomats.

The EU's Javier Solana, who is formally heading the one-day negotiations with chief Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili, was upbeat before the start of the talks in an 18th century villa in Geneva. The U.S. official briefed reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the private nature of the talks.

A bilateral meeting with Iran would reflect Washington's determination to get results from the meeting.

The fact that the meeting is taking place at all offers some hope, reflecting both sides' desire to talk, despite a spike in tensions over last week's revelations by Iran that it had been secretly building a new uranium enrichment plant.

Yet Tehran's acknowledgment that it had kept silent on the plant — which can make both nuclear fuel and fissile warhead cores — has left the Western powers with only modest expectations about the success of the talks.

While the West fears that Iran's nuclear program aims to make a bomb, Iran insists the program is strictly for peaceful use and has refused to negotiate any limits on it.

If the talks fail, the U.S. and its Western allies are expected to renew their push for a fourth set of U.N. Security Council sanctions.

In addition to the United States and Iran, the countries meeting Thursday include members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany. The U.S. delegation is headed by William Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs.

The State Department stressed its hope that the session would open the door to more in-depth dialogue about ways Iran could alleviate concerns that its emerging nuclear program may be secretly developing nuclear weapons.

If Iran is willing to address the nuclear issues, then there likely will be subsequent meetings, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in Washington.

"That process will take some time," Crowley said. "We're not going to make a snap judgment on Thursday. We're going to see how that meeting goes, evaluate the willingness of Iran to engage on these issues."

Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, asked what Moscow hoped from the talks, said: "To have a start that has a continuation."

Chinese diplomats have also been urging Iran to negotiate with the six powers, U.N. diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Crowley noted that President Barack Obama has said he intends to take a few months to assess Iran's position and consult with negotiating partners before deciding what next steps to take.

Diplomats at U.N. headquarters in New York said there has been no discussion of a new sanctions resolution — comments echoed Thursday in Moscow by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.

"I'm no fanatic about sanctions," Kouchner told Ekho Moskvy radio. He said sanctions can sometimes be useful and suggested they cannot be ruled out but added "in Geneva, we are not talking about sanctions."

Several diplomats said they wanted to wait for a report from the U.N. nuclear agency on its inspection of Iran's newly disclosed nuclear facility and to see Tehran's response to the incentives if it starts negotiations.

Associated Press writers Bradley S. Klapper and Alexander G. Higgins in Geneva and Pam Hess in Washington contributed to this report.

A member of the special warfare command poses for photographs as he parachutes from a helicopter near Seoul. REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak