U.S. and Iran face off at six-power nuclear talks

Six world powers met with Iran in Switzerland on Thursday for talks U.S. officials said would need to convince them Tehran was prepared to show it was not hiding plans for a nuclear bomb.

Underlining they would not threaten fresh sanctions against Tehran but had prepared them in case the talks made no progress, Washington also said there could be an opportunity for a rare bilateral meeting with the Iranians.

"This can't be a phony process," a senior U.S. official said in Washington. "It can't be a process where they go through the motions."

U.S. diplomats sat alongside those from Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China for the talks on how to end the long-running standoff over Iran's nuclear program, which Tehran says is designed purely for generating electricity.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana spoke first, followed by Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns, head of the U.S. delegation, an official at the talks said.

Diplomats said the biggest question was whether the Iranian negotiator would be willing to talk about Iran's nuclear program and a second enrichment facility at Qom, which the United States, Britain and France revealed last week.

Iran has defied five U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding it suspend all sensitive nuclear activities and says its nuclear program is not up for discussion. It wants to focus instead on regional security issues, such as Afghanistan.


In Washington, senior Obama administration officials said the United States will not threaten Iran with fresh sanctions at the one-day talks in Geneva. "This is the engagement track tomorrow, not the pressure track," one senior official said.

But the official said the United States has been preparing "a range of areas" in which to pursue sanctions against Iran if Tehran ignores Western entreaties about its nuclear program.

The officials would not discuss specifics of the sanctions, which experts believe could be targeted at the energy sector. They said there had been active consultations among allies and that sanctions could be applied through the U.N. Security Council or coordinated among individuals countries.

"You're in a much better position to prepare the ground on the pressure track if you have demonstrated unmistakably that you're doing everything you can on the engagement side," one official said.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner confirmed to a Moscow radio station that sanctions would not come up in Geneva.

The meeting at the elegant villa made available by the Swiss for decades to bring foes together was the first time a U.S. official was a "full participant" in a meeting of the major powers with Iran.

U.S. officials said Burns was not actively seeking a one-on-one meeting with Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, but would not reject one if the opportunity arose.

An official at the talks said an informal lunch would be an opportunity for bilateral meetings, followed by a second plenary session expected to run until 6 or 7 p.m. 12 - 1 p.m. EDT.

The U.S. approach contrasts sharply with a similar meeting in Geneva in 2008, when Burns left the room to avoid having to shake hands with Jalili, according to diplomats at those talks.

Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Fredrik Dahl in Tehran and Steve Holland in Washington; editing by Philippa Fletcher

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