Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Picture: REUTERS
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Picture: REUTERS

MUNICH — Iran has announced it will hold talks with world powers over its nuclear programme, in the first sign of diplomatic movement since last year to try to settle the international impasse.

In a speech to the Munich Security Conference on Sunday, Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s foreign minister, said Tehran had agreed to attend a meeting with the world powers in Astana, the Kazakh capital, on February 25.

The six powers that negotiate with Iran — the US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany — would make a revised offer on sanctions, with slightly more concessions than in past negotiations, said western diplomats.

However, they noted that Iran and the international community had held three unsuccessful meetings on the issue last year. Diplomats also said Mr Salehi gave little indication in his speech that Iran — which says it is enriching uranium for peaceful energy only — would accept any new deal.

Iran’s move came on a weekend that also saw Joe Biden, the US vice-president, announce that Washington was prepared to hold bilateral talks with Iran to seek a solution to the nuclear standoff.

The US "would be prepared to meet bilaterally with the Iranian leadership", Mr Biden said in Munich, but "there has to be an agenda that they are prepared to speak to. We are not just prepared to do it for the exercise."

The US has made clear for some time that it is prepared to meet Iran bilaterally. Mr Biden’s comment is the highest level at which this offer has been made, but diplomats say Iran has been reluctant to respond.

At meetings with Iran last year, the six powers — known as the E3 plus three — offered to scale back some international sanctions on Tehran in return for moves to halt certain nuclear activities.

They called on Iran to close its second enrichment plant at Fordow, end production of more highly enriched uranium and ship its existing stock of 20% enriched uranium abroad. In return they offered what was effectively a symbolic first step to end sanctions.

In Astana, the E3 plus three would offer to scale back sanctions slightly if Iran took the required action, diplomats said. However, Iran is asking for far more substantial concessions than the six powers are prepared to give, and expectations of success are low.

One western diplomat in Munich said the level of pressure that economic sanctions were exerting on Iran was striking. Energy sanctions meant Iran had lost $46bn of revenue, equivalent to 8% of its annual gross domestic product, the diplomat said.

Analysts say a key test for Tehran may come with this year’s elections, which could see demonstrations against the regime.

"Iran is currently suffering 40% inflation and that means a huge decrease in purchasing power," said an expert based outside the country. "This could bring people out on the street."

Despite the pressure, many believe there will be no breakthrough for some time because Tehran will weather the storm.

"I think these are good statements that both sides are at least open to this, (but) I think there have to be some ideas about how you get them to the table in a credible way," said Vali Nasr, dean of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "One of the worst things is that if they went to the table and then they fail … then we really will be at an impasse."

The year ahead is a critical one for chances of overcoming a stand-off which, if left to fester further, could see Iran approach nuclear weapons capability and provoke military action by Israel that could inflame the Middle East.

The Financial Times ©2013