ISTANBUL — The United States and other world powers went into another round of talks with Iran here on Friday with low expectations, but with Iran indicating that it would like to make progress on a fuel-swap arrangement originally designed by Washington as a confidence-building measure.
The United States and its allies believe that Iran is enriching uranium far beyond its peaceful needs and trying to build a nuclear weapon, while Iran insists that its enrichment program is peaceful and says it has no intention of halting enrichment, as the United Nations Security Council has demanded. But Washington believes that Iran’s position has been somewhat weakened by a new round of economic sanctions and a computer virus that has disrupted some of its enrichment of uranium, delaying the estimated timetable for an Iranian bomb.
The last round of talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany and the European Union, produced little in Geneva in December except an agreement to meet again here. The leader of the Iranian delegation, Saeed Jalili, did not take up a chance for a private bilateral meeting with his American counterpart, William J. Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs.
But in Moscow on Thursday, Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said that Tehran was “prepared to conduct negotiations” to carry out talks to swap uranium enriched to low levels for the equivalent of manufactured fuel rods for a small reactor in Tehran that produces medical isotopes, and Iranian diplomats in Paris indicated that wide-ranging talks with Washington remained a goal.
Still, Mr. Jalili is considered by Western diplomats to be negotiating within relatively strict guidelines, and any progress would almost surely have to be ratified in Tehran before another round of talks could proceed.
Iran had agreed in October 2009 to send about 2,645 pounds of low-enriched uranium to Russia and France to be manufactured into fuel rods — at the time about 75 percent of Iran’s known stockpile of low-enriched uranium, which is enriched to between 3.5 and 5 percent. The deal was meant to leave Iran with less low-enriched uranium than it would need to build a bomb. But the deal fell apart because of disagreements in Iran, including the reported opposition of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
An effort by Turkey and Brazil last May to revive the deal was rejected by Washington and its allies because Iran had continued to produce more enriched uranium in the intervening months. There was also concern that Iran would not export the uranium but merely park it offshore where it might be retrieved. The effort strained ties between Washington and Turkey and Brazil, and Turkey is still trying hard to be a diplomatic go-between for Iran and the West, though not always successfully.
Today, Iran has known stockpiles of about 7,700 pounds of low-enriched uranium and about 90 pounds of uranium enriched to 19.75 percent, which is about halfway to bomb grade, officials said. So any new deal for a fuel swap will have to include much bigger amounts if it is to accomplish the same end of confidence-building.
The West would also like to see Iran agree to a protocol of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty that requires signatories to tell the International Atomic Energy Agency when they begin construction of a nuclear facility, not just when it goes into service. So far Iran says that it is complying with the treaty as Tehran signed it, without the protocol. On that basis, Tehran was able to defend the Qum enrichment site that was built in secret and revealed through espionage, but was not yet operational.
The new economic sanctions are biting in Iran, but have not put the regime at risk, Western diplomats concede. The United States and France are already considering what a further round of sanctions might include, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recently suggested unilateral sanctions.
But Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said here on Thursday that Moscow considered any unilateral sanctions “counterproductive,” and that it wanted instead to discuss how to eliminate the existing ones as part of the talks with Iran.
Iran’s “nuclear program must be at the heart of the discussions and the problems that have not yet been resolved concerning it,” Mr. Lavrov said at a news conference with his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu. “But there’s not only one topic for this meeting. The lifting of sanctions on Iran must also be on the agenda.”
Mr. Davutoglu hosted a dinner Thursday night for all the delegations, a way to get this round of talks off to a more cordial start. The talks are scheduled to end on Saturday.