On the eve of high-stakes talks with Iran, the White House on Friday signaled a willingness to consider giving Tehran economic incentives — but only after the regime takes "concrete steps" towards freezing its suspect nuclear program.
"We would certainly explore reciprocal actions that are responsive to concrete steps by the Iranians," said Ben Rhodes, President Barack Obama's Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications.
"We'll be ready to reciprocate steps that they take, but again we'll have to see actions, not just words from the Iranian government," Rhodes told reporters aboard Air Force One as Obama headed via Florida to a summit in Colombia.
His comments came with negotiators from the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China — the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — along with Germany, countries which are all set to hold talks Saturday with Iran in Istanbul.
The so-called P5+1 want Iran to take actions to reassure the world that it is not seeking nuclear weapons under the guise of what it insists is a civilian atomic energy program.
Tehran denies the charges. But recent reports from the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), have stoked concerns about Iran's refusal to bow to world demands that it freeze its uranium enrichment. Enrichment can be a key step towards building a nuclear weapon.
Rhodes set low expectations for the talks in Turkey — the first such face-to-face discussions in over a year.
"We believe that the talks that are going forward is a positive sign," he said. "I think nobody expects to resolve all differences in one meeting, but what we want is a positive environment where the Iranian government demonstrates its seriousness and its commitment to pursuing serious negotiations with the P5+1."
"We want to begin with a negotiation that can address our concerns about their nuclear program, and we want that negotiation to move forward with a sense of urgency," said Rhodes. "Because as the President has said, we do believe there's time and space for diplomacy, but it's not unlimited." Obama has said he has not ruled out military action against Iran. Israel has made clear it views a nuclear Iran as a threat to its very existence and will use force to keep this from happening.
The official said the talks would partly look to set the stage for further negotiations and said another round could take place in Baghdad.
"It would be a positive step forward to see those negotiations continue," he said.
U.S. officials have expressed hopes that Iran, laboring under crippling economic sanctions and facing the prospect of Europe halting imports of its oil, will bow to pressure to halt uranium enrichment and take other concrete actions.
Obama came to office seeking to engage Tehran, and offering to meet with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But when Iran rebuffed his overtures, the president moved to tighten U.S. and international sanctions, which have never been tougher.
U.S. lawmakers will also be watching the talks with an eye on imposing another round of sanctions.
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