In a rare show of unity, Iran and the world's big powers on Saturday hailed their first nuclear meeting in more than a year as a key step toward further negotiations meant to ease international fears that Tehran may weaponize its nuclear program. The one concrete reflection of progress was an agreement to meet again on May 23 in Baghdad, a venue put forward by Iran.
But huge hurdles still lie in the way of a common understanding of what Iran should do to end suspicions of its nuclear activities. Those barriers may prove insurmountable considering the differences between Tehran and the six nations trying to persuade it to compromise on its nuclear efforts.
Since revelations surfaced 10 years ago that it was secretly building a uranium enrichment program, Tehran has argued it has a right to enrichment to create reactor fuel under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and insisted it will never use that ability to create the fissile core of a nuclear warhead.
But the United States and other countries accuse Iran of repeatedly violating the treaty, and Tehran continues to expand enrichment despite four sets of U.N. Security Council resolutions and other penalties imposed by the United States, Europe and others. Adding to concerns, it now is enriching uranium to levels closer to the grade needed for nuclear weapons in an underground bunker that could be impervious to attack.
The talks in Istanbul on Saturday saw the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany sitting at the same table with Iran. Knowing the road ahead is tough, both sides focused on what they said was the positive tone of the talks, in contrast to the previous round 14 months ago.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who formally led the talks on behalf of the six powers, called the meeting "constructive and useful."
Iranian chief negotiator Saeed Jalili said the talks made "some progress." But he acknowledged "some points of difference."
"What we saw today in the talks was the interest of the other party in the talks and cooperation, which is considered positive," he told reporters.
In London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the talks were "the first steps" toward the push to find "a peaceful, negotiated solution to the (Iran) nuclear issue."
"Today's talks were a first step towards that objective, but there is still a long way to go."
Both Jalili and Ashton said there was agreement to move slowly and be guided by reciprocity -- meaning that Iran stood to benefit from easing fears about its enrichment program by unspecified rewards from the other side.
Iran hopes those rewards could include easing or delaying sanctions that target its main cash cow, its oil sales. Jalili acknowledged Saturday that Iran would like to avoid those penalties.
"The lifting of sanctions is one of the demands by Iranian nation," Jalili told reporters.
Beyond the bite of sanctions, Iran is under threat of Israeli and possibly U.S. military attack unless it makes headway in persuading the international community it is not pursuing nuclear weapons.