President Obama met with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan in Seoul on March 25, 2012. (Anatolian News Agency)
"We're not going to get involved in a silly back and forth over venue," one American official said Tuesday on condition of anonymity, because the talks have not yet been announced. "If the Iranians give us a final yes, expect an announcement shortly."
The extensive discussions and effort required to even settle on a date and locale for the talks are but one sign of the daunting task faced by diplomats trying to reach an actual substantive accord with Iran over its nuclear program. Former Israeli intelligence chief Efraim Halevy warned this week of signs of a wider level of international diplomatic disarray that is ominous.
If the Iran talks fail, there will be "nothing else left" but military action, Halevy told Israeli newspaper the Times of Israel in an interview Sunday. And it's "tragic," Halevy said, that "I don't see any great effort being made" by the so-called P5+1 group--the U.S., UK, France, Germany, Russia and China--to "prepare urgently and effectively" for those talks, the paper reported.
"Talks regarding the venue are under way," Iran Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Wednesday, Reuters reported. "Turkey has announced its willingness to host the talks between Iran and major powers, and it seems that P5+1 has welcomed it. This suggestion has also been given to Iran and we are considering it."
President Obama has repeatedly said he wants to give diplomacy a chance to resolve international concerns over Iran's nuclear program, but warned the window to do so is narrow. "There is time to solve this diplomatically, but time is short," Obama said Monday in Seoul, South Korea. "Iran must act with the seriousness and sense of urgency that this moment demands."
The apparent settling on Istanbul as a venue for the talks came after President Obama held a meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the Seoul nuclear summit Sunday. Erdogan announced at that meeting that he would be traveling to Iran after Seoul.
The Turkish leader alluded to those discussions when he arrived in Iran Wednesday. "I had consultations in South Korea with Iran's counterpart in the talks," Erdogan said Wednesday in Iran, Reuters reported. "And we are awaiting results of these consultations and their views. Our intention is to help the process of these talks."
American officials have been discussing with allies a proposed "confidence building measure" they want Iran to agree to as a key test of whether talks are productive and to buy time for the diplomatic process. The details of the current measure after it's been hashed out with allies are not entirely clear; but non-proliferation experts briefed on an earlier version of it said it would ask Iran to suspend its 20% uranium enrichment activities, and ship out its stockpile of 20% enriched fuel. In return, the western powers would agree to hold off on a new UN sanctions resolution. Some sources said the agreement would also provide Iran nuclear fuel or isotopes to treat Iranian cancer patients.
Western officials only warmed to the idea of Istanbul after Iran suggested Iraq might be a good venue, former American diplomat and Iran expert Vali Nasr said Wednesday. The last Iran nuclear talks held in Istanbul in January 2011 went badly, as had a meeting a month earlier held in Geneva. "Iran suggests Baghdad for P5+1 meet," Nasr wrote on Twitter Wednesday. "Suddenly Istanbul looks very attractive to US & allies.
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