Iran and six world powers concluded a second day of negotiations Wednesday in Geneva that were aimed at ending a decade-old standoff over Tehran's disputed nuclear activities, with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif saying the group would meet again within weeks to continue discussions.
Reflecting signs of progress in ongoing talks, diplomats expressed cautious optimism about the prospects for eventually resolving issues around Iran's contested nuclear program in return for a lifting of sanctions.
The six countries, known as the P5+1 (the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the U.S., the U.K., Russia, China and France — plus Germany), were expected to press Zarif for details of Iran's proposal outlined on Tuesday, which Tehran described as a potential breakthrough.
A member of one of the delegations who asked to remain anonymous told the Associated Press that Iran's plan offered reductions in both the levels of Iranian uranium enrichment and the number of centrifuges doing the enrichment, a key demand of the six powers.
Iran's state TV also said Tehran offered to discuss uranium enrichment levels. The report said Iran had proposed adopting the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — which would open its nuclear facilities to more intrusive inspection and monitoring — if the West recognizes its right to enrich uranium.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who led the negotiations on behalf of the world powers, said the Iranian presentation would be examined "carefully." Her spokesman earlier described the talks as "very useful."
A senior U.S. official told Reuters he never had such "intense, detailed, straightforward, candid" talks with the Iranians as in Geneva this week. While another U.S. official said differences remain on what sanctions relief would be appropriate, British Foreign Minister William Hague said the West is ready to match Iran's concessions with "proportionate steps."
A fresh round of discussions has been set for Nov. 7–8.
Western officials said the fact that the plan was delivered in English for the first time underlined a new mood of engagement in the often-tense nuclear talks.
Zarif said the six powers welcomed Iran's "new approach," and he urged reciprocity, calling on Western powers to also show a "new attitude."
The Geneva meeting was the first round of talks among the group since the election of reformist Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in June, and follows recent signals from Iran that it wants to thaw relations with the U.S.
Two weeks ago, President Barack Obama spoke with Rouhani over the phone, in the first contact between presidents of the two nations since the 1979 revolution that overthrew the U.S.-backed shah of Iran.
Western diplomats, however, stressed that they wanted Tehran to back up newly conciliatory language with concrete actions by agreeing to scale back its enrichment of uranium and take verifiable steps to show it is not covertly trying to develop the means to produce nuclear bombs.
Although Rouhani said in New York last month that he wanted a deal with the P5+1 within three to six months, Zarif had played down expectations that an agreement would be reached this week.
"I am hopeful that by Wednesday we can reach agreement on a road map to find a path towards resolution," he said on his Facebook page prior to the meeting.
The talks in Geneva were being viewed as a test of Iran's new posture. Rouhani took office in August pledging transparency on the nuclear program and engagement with the international community to help lift the sanctions strangling his country's economy. And, critical to its prospects of success in the face of opposition by hard-liners in Tehran, Rouhani's attempted outreach has been backed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Signaling some of the opposition Western powers might face in seeking compromise with Iran, Israel on Tuesday urged that they avoid a limited deal that would involve any relaxing of sanctions.
Its security cabinet warned the international community against any "partial agreement that would fail to bring about the full dismantling of the Iranian military nuclear program ... (which) could lead to the collapse of the sanctions regime."
The U.S. and its allies suspect Iran's intentions as it develops a nuclear infrastructure that gives it the capability to make nuclear weapons — even if, according to U.S. intelligence estimates, Tehran has not as yet made a decision to build a bomb. Iran denies that its nuclear work has any military intentions, but its refusal to curb sensitive nuclear activity and fully comply with the concerns expressed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has drawn tough international sanctions.
Since 2006, Iran has rejected Security Council demands that it halt uranium enrichment until it has satisfied IAEA concerns, and has continued to expand its nuclear fuel program in the face of an increasingly harsh sanctions regime.
Al Jazeera and wire services