Evan Vucci / AP

US to hold bilateral meetings with Iran

The consultations next week aim to jumpstart diplomacy on Iran's nuclear program ahead of multilateral talks in Geneva

U.S. and Iranian officials will meet early next week before the next round of negotiations between Iran and six world powers on Iran's nuclear program, the U.S. State Department said on Saturday, signaling Washington’s desire to ramp up diplomatic activity ahead of a looming July deadline to reach a deal.

Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, who conducted negotiations that helped bring about the Nov. 24 interim nuclear agreement between Iran and the major powers, will lead the U.S. delegation. It will also include the senior U.S. negotiator with Iran, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, and senior staff from the State Department and National Security Council.

The meeting comes after the most recent round of nuclear talks between Iran and the six powers in Vienna last month – the so-called "P5+1" process – ran into difficulties, with each side accusing the other of having unrealistic demands in negotiations aimed at curbing Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for an end to sanctions.

The U.S. decision to head to Geneva and meet with the Iranian delegation, which a senior U.S. official said might be led by Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, appeared to highlight Washington’s desire to break the deadlock.

"We’ve always said that we would engage bilaterally with the Iranians if it can help advance our efforts, in active coordination with the P5+1," a U.S. official told Reuters. "In order to really seriously test whether we can reach a diplomatic solution with Iran on its nuclear program, we believe we need to engage in very active and very aggressive diplomacy."

The official said the talks next week were not negotiations. "These are really consultations to exchange views in advance of the next negotiating round in Vienna," the official said.

The United States will join the other members of the six-power negotiating group – Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia – and Iran in Vienna for a full round of negotiations beginning on June 16. The Vienna talks are coordinated by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

The U.S. official noted that Washington was being open and public about the bilateral consultations with Iran "unlike before when it needed to be kept very discreet to give it the best chance of success."

"We haven’t yet seen the kind of realism on the Iranian side that we need to see or seen them make some of the tough choices we’re going to have to see," the official said. "We’re at critical moment" in the negotiations, the official added.

The United States and many other countries have longstanding concerns about the scope of Iran’s nuclear program, which it fears is part of an aspiration on the part of Tehran to acquire nuclear weapons. Iran insists that its nuclear program, which is allowed under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, is for civilian energy purposes only.

Al Jazeera and Reuters

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