GENEVA — Iran agreed in principle Thursday to ship most of its enriched uranium to Russia, where it would be refined for exclusively peaceful uses, in what Western diplomats called a significant, but interim, measure to ease concerns over its nuclear program.
The agreement was announced after more than seven hours of high-level talks in Geneva among Iran and representatives of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, which also featured the highest-level official U.S.-Iranian encounter in three decades.
Iran also pledged that within weeks it would allow the inspection of a previously covert uranium enrichment facility near the holy city of Qom, and the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, announced that he'd head to Tehran to work out the details.
In Washington, President Barack Obama said the talks marked "a constructive beginning" and showed the promise of renewed engagement with Iran, but added that "going forward, we expect to see swift action. We're not interested in talking for the sake of talking."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the talks had "opened the door" to potential progress on the nuclear issue. "It was a productive day, but the proof of that has not yet come to fruition, so we'll wait and continue to press our point of view and see what Iran decides to do," she said.
In Geneva, Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, said he hoped the talks — which are to reconvene later this month — were the beginning of intensive engagement with Iran after a 15-month pause.
Despite the outward signs of progress, however, Solana and U.S. officials said Iran gave no ground on demands that it halt the enrichment of uranium, which can be used for both civilian nuclear power and nuclear weapons.
The Obama administration, along with Israel and many lawmakers on Capitol Hill, also worries that Tehran will string out diplomacy with small concessions while it continues covert work toward fashioning a nuclear weapon.
"The overall problem of Iran's nuclear program remains," said a senior U.S. official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity.
Under the tentative deal, Iran would ship what a U.S. official said was "most" of its approximately 3,300 pounds of low-enriched uranium to Russia, where it would be further refined. French technicians then would fabricate it into fuel rods and return it to Tehran to power a nuclear research reactor that's used to make isotopes for nuclear medicine.
During the talks at a villa outside Geneva, Undersecretary of State William Burns, the State Department's No. 3 official, met for about 45 minutes with Saeed Jalili, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator. At that session, which officials described as businesslike, Burns raised Iran's human rights record, the senior U.S. official said.
The Burns-Jalili encounter is the latest attempt by the Obama administration to engage Iran, which Washington also has threatened with "crippling" sanctions if it doesn't suspend the nuclear work.
The State Department allowed Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, to visit Washington on Wednesday, waiving regulations that usually confine Iranian diplomats within a 25-mile radius of the United Nations in downtown Manhattan. Mottaki didn't meet U.S. officials, but visited Iran's interests section, which is overseen by Pakistan, because the United States and Iran have no diplomatic relations.
The United States broke diplomatic ties with Iran in early 1980, shortly after Islamic radicals seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November 1979 and took 66 Americans hostage, 52 of whom remained captive for 444 days.
There have been sporadic U.S.-Iranian contacts in the ensuing three decades, official and unofficial, secret and overt.
Then-U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker met several times with Iranian representatives in Baghdad in 2007 and 2008 to discuss security in Iran, but those talks included Iraqi officials. Then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright joined her Iranian counterpart to discuss Afghanistan in 2000, but officials of other countries attended that session, too.
Earlier on Thursday, a Western diplomat, briefing reporters on the condition of anonymity because the talks were still under way, said that at the morning session, representatives of the six nations — Britain, China, France, Russia, the U.S. and Germany — told Jalili that Iran must agree to negotiate over its nuclear program.
They also reiterated that a June 2008 offer of improved economic, political and security ties remains on the table, the diplomat said.
Iran at times has ruled out talks on its nuclear enrichment program, which it says is its sovereign right, and at other times has said it would discuss the issue only in the context of its regional and global concerns.
After all sides read prepared talking points Thursday morning, Jalili "started talking about the nuclear issue in this wider context," the diplomat said.
The talks took place at the Villa le Saugy, outside Geneva. According to an official at the talks, who asked not to be identified because the official wasn't authorized to talk to journalists, the Iranian officials and other delegations "dined and mingled" over an outdoor lunch. The menu included trout almondine, creme brulee, wine and coffee.
Iran agrees to ship enriched uranium to Russia for refinement | McClatchy