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Iran hints at atomic concessions

Western diplomats said Tehran hinted it was ready to scale back sensitive atomic activities.

Iran President Hassan Rowhani. Picture: AFP

GENEVA - The US described two days of nuclear negotiations with Iran as the most serious and candid to date after Western diplomats said Tehran hinted it was ready to scale back sensitive atomic activities to secure urgent sanctions relief.

But a senior US administration official told reporters after the conclusion of negotiations between Iran and six world powers that no breakthroughs had been achieved and many disagreements remained. Other Western diplomats said there had been no apparent narrowing of differences between Tehran and the six nations over its nuclear ambitions.

"I've been doing this now for about two years," the official said on condition of anonymity. "And I have never had such intense, detailed, straightforward, candid conversations with the Iranian delegation before."

The White House spokesman, Jay Carney, echoed the remarks, saying Iran's proposal showed "a level of seriousness and substance that we had not seen before". But he cautioned that "no one should expect a breakthrough overnight".

Washington's ally Israel, which has told the US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China - the six nations negotiating with Iran - not to trust Tehran, said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's plans to speak next week with US Secretary of State John Kerry about the Geneva talks and sanctions should not be eased until Iran proves it is dismantling its program.

Netanyahu on October 1 told the UN General Assembly Iran's new President Hassan Rouhani, widely seen as a pragmatist and centrist, was a "wolf in sheep's clothing" and that Israel was ready to act alone to keep Tehran from getting nuclear weapons.

Tehran denies allegations by Western powers that it is seeking the capability to produce atomic bombs.

But so far it has defied UN Security Council demands that it halt enrichment and other sensitive nuclear activities, leading to multiple rounds of crippling international sanctions that have reduced Iranian oil exports, caused inflation to soar and the value of the Iranian rial currency to plummet.

Western officials have said that they need Iran to increase the transparency of its nuclear programme, stop enriching uranium to 20 percent, reduce its uranium stockpiles and take other steps to assure the world it does not want atomic weapons.

'IMPORTANT CONTRIBUTION'

In a rare joint statement highlighting the dramatic shift from confrontation to dialogue since Rouhani took office in August, negotiators from Iran and the six world powers said Tehran's new proposal aimed at defusing longstanding suspicions over the nature of its nuclear programme was an "important contribution" now under careful consideration.

Details of Iran's proposal, presented during two days of negotiations in Geneva, have not been released, and Western officials were unsure whether Tehran was prepared to go far enough to clinch a breakthrough deal.

After Tuesday's initial round, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi suggested Tehran was prepared to address long-standing calls for the UN nuclear watchdog to have wider and more intrusive inspection powers.

Washington cut off diplomatic ties with Tehran in 1980.

The sequencing of any concessions by Iran and any sanctions relief by the West could prove a stumbling block en route to a landmark, verifiable deal. Western officials have repeatedly said that Iran must suspend enriching uranium to 20 percent fissile purity, their main worry, before sanctions are eased.

Rouhani's election opened the door to serious negotiations with the six powers, Western envoys say.

Britain said it hoped this week's talks would lead to "concrete" results but that Iran must take the initiative. "Iran will need to take the necessary first steps on its programme and we are ready to take proportionate steps in return," Foreign Secretary William Hague said.

Russia warned against undue optimism. "The result is better than in Almaty (talks held in April) but does not guarantee further progress," Sergey Ryabkov, Russia's deputy foreign minister and Iran negotiator, told Interfax.

ENRICHMENT HALT OUT OF QUESTION

Israel on Wednesday also urged Western powers not to give up economic sanctions on Iran until Tehran proves it is dismantling its nuclear program.

Iran has made clear for years that it does not intend to renounce uranium enrichment, despite UN Security Council demands that it do so.

Most Iranians of whatever political persuasion equate the quest for nuclear energy with national sovereignty, modernisation and a standing equal to the Western world.

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