UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The European Union's foreign policy chief expressed hope Wednesday that Iran will show flexibility at upcoming talks on its nuclear program so that "substantial progress" can be made to address international concerns about its nuclear ambitions.
Catherine Ashton, who has been steering negotiations on behalf of six key nations trying to rein in Iran's nuclear program, said "there is no doubt" that the pressure of sanctions is bringing Iran back to the negotiating table.
The U.N. Security Council has imposed four rounds of sanctions against Iran since December 2006 in hopes of pressuring the government to suspend enrichment, which it has refused to do. The United States and the EU have added even tougher sanctions.
Iran says it is enriching uranium only to power reactors and for scientific and medical purposes. But many countries fear its real goal is to produce nuclear weapons. Ashton raised Iran at a Security Council meeting on EU-U.N. cooperation in which she discussed other global hotspots including Mali, North Korea and Syria.
She said that after "very lengthy consultations," representatives from the six key powers that have been trying to restart negotiations with Iran — the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — will meet Iranian officials on Feb. 26 in Kazakhstan.
"We hope Iran will come to this negotiation with flexibility, and that we can make substantial progress," Ashton said. The six parties are determined to work towards a solution of the Iranian nuclear issue based on the longstanding "dual-track" approach — promoting diplomatic engagement and building pressure, she said.
While sanctions are bringing Iran back to negotiations, Ashton stressed that "sanctions cannot be an end in itself." "The key is for Iran to comply fully with its international obligations," she said.
Alireza Miryusefi, spokesman for Iran's U.N. Mission, responded that the Islamic Republic "is serious about those talks and expects the other side to be serious and forthcoming so that the next round of negotiations ... would lead to positive and fruitful results."
He retierated Iran's determination "to defend its legitimate rights to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes" under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and said this should be "fully recognized" by the six powers.
Iran has reiterated on several occasions that the dual-track approach "is a futile exercise in the sense that the track at exerting pressure on Iran will definitely derail the efforts on the diplomatic track," Miryusefi said. "So any negotiations to be successful must be conducted in a cooperative, constructive and positive spirit."
On other issues, Ashton urged support for the U.N. as it takes greater responsibility in Mali, including for peacekeeping during "what will be a crucial stabilization phase." She said the EU supports the U.N.'s deployment of human rights monitors to the west African nation and welcomes the International Criminal Court's decision to open an investigation into war crimes committed in Mali since an armed uprising plunged the country into chaos a year ago.
Ashton called North Korea's nuclear test "a further blatant challenge to the global non-proliferation regime" and said it's vital for the international community to stand united and demonstrate to Pyongyang "that there are consequences of continued violations."
"We once again urge them to abandon their nuclear weapons program including the uranium enrichment program in a complete, verifiable, and irreversible manner," she said. As for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Ashton said there is "an urgent need" for renewed peace efforts in 2013.
"We believe the time has come for concrete steps to be made towards peace, to see direct and substantial negotiations, and to achieve the lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on two states," she said.
On Syria, Ashton said the EU hopes the deeply divided Security Council will unite behind an international roadmap to end the country's civil war adopted in Geneva in June and make it operational. The EU also encourages Syrian authorities to seize the opportunity offered by opposition leader Mouaz al-Khatib for talks, she said.